The Timeliness of Actions When a Staff Member Dies
September 01, 2019
Appears in September 2019: School Administrator.
Focus: MENTAL HEALTH
Over Memorial Day weekend last year, two beloved staff members in our suburban Chicago school districts unexpectedly lost their lives. One was a longtime building secretary, only weeks from retiring. The other was a physical education teacher who was
married and the father of two elementary school-age children.
We felt overwhelmed at receiving this news. At the same time, we had to determine quickly how to support our communities through this difficult time. Fortunately, because of our professional networks, we were able to connect to discuss our situations and support each other.
How can you best support your school community in moments of grief over unexpected loss? Most superintendents do not have the skills to respond to every aspect of such a tragedy.
An appropriate start would be to immediately contact the school social worker(s) or psychologist to involve them in developing a plan to meet the needs of the grieving school community. They can contact neighboring districts to request counseling assistance for students and staff members in the immediate aftermath.
Being timely in your communication is vital. In this era of ubiquitous cell phones and social media, you must notify your school community promptly. Contact school board members and the administrative team via phone as quickly as possible. They, in turn, need to prepare themselves for the texts, phone calls and e-mails that undoubtedly will follow. In addition, provide board members and administrators in a follow-up email with a short list of “just the facts” for use when communicating with others. This will reduce the chance of spreading misinformation and will support them through emotion-filled conversations.
Tragic information is best shared with staff in person or over the phone. Afterwards, send staff an e-mail that mirrors the information shared with the board and administrators. When staff members return to work, hold a gathering to grieve as a school family before the students arrive. Include custodians, office and lunchroom staff.
For parents, a message sent through the normal communication system is appropriate. A simple, factual letter from the school district will reduce the possibility of misinformation and speculation. Parents will want to know so they can discuss the loss with their children prior to their return to school. Also, contact the retired teacher organization, other local leaders and perhaps neighboring districts.
What students are told depends on their age, relationship with the staff member and community values. Have the social worker or psychologist develop a script for teachers, providing them with ideas for what to say to students as well as developmentally appropriate answers for likely questions. Have the social worker review the script with staff prior to students arriving. This will assist teachers in feeling confident as they support their students’ emotional needs.
Coordinate calls and electronic contact from the press, being careful to only release public information about the staff member, while expressing your grief and condolences. Inform the press about what the district is doing to support students and staff.
The staff and community may want to create a memorial. Anyone who would like to participate in brainstorming ideas should be allowed a voice. Some common options are sidewalk pavers, plaques, tree plantings and outside benches. Take time to decide and
choose a memorial that will last and not require excessive maintenance.
Most importantly, the superintendent must be visible and available to listen. Walk around, offer hugs, visit classrooms and give staff breaks if needed. Provide staff with lunch and snacks to give them a reason to go to the lounge during schedule breaks for support rather than sit alone in their classrooms grieving.
As leaders of our districts, we are wired to take action, but in this type of situation we found the best thing we could do for our staff was to show up and listen.
Nancy Wagner is superintendent of River Trails School District 26 in Mount Prospect, Ill.
John Corbett is superintendent of Wood Dale School District 7 in Wood Dale, Ill.