When Your School’s Heart Breaks
A MiddleWeb Blog
The grief is a fog over our community. It is a stifling crush. It is a whisper and a roar and I know that the tendrils of pain will long linger in the hallways throughout my district.
This hasn’t been the only tragedy. In the last year, the son of our counselor died by suicide, the high school secretary died from cancer, a high school student lost both of her legs in a terrible car crash, a beloved first grade teacher had to leave mid-year to treat her own cancer, and another is facing her husband’s similar battle.
Add to this the “normal” trials of everyday life in a small town: the meth busts, the parents in jail, the newly homeless, and the folks who struggle to pay their bills. Like so many school communities we’re feeling what Bruce Springsteen calls “The darkness on the edge of town.”
The two boys who died were wrestlers and a part of our very successful team. Their coaches are amazing men who teach at my school. Watching them being tugged down in the undertow of grief was a visceral pain in my heart. But watching them rise to the challenge of loving our school community was exactly the inverse. It was a salve and a call to action.
Start with Love, End with Love
As I process my own grief, I am thinking about how loving school leaders help their staff work through the darkness to step into the warm light of small everyday markers of hope and love. The bottom line, I think, is to remember to start with love, end with love, and to let love guide all that is in between. Hard knocks like this bring me back to that great truth every time.
Below is the email I sent my staff the day we learned the boys had died.
This has been a hell of a couple of years. Our little school community has suffered blow after blow. As we begin to mourn the boys most of us loved and nurtured for many years, I want to share a couple of thoughts and a poem with you.
Each of you is loved and appreciated. No day passes when my heart isn’t glad to spend my days with you. There is no other group who rallies in support like you all do. I am here for you if you need me. I know that you are here for me. Thank you.
The way you supported and served each other on Friday was, while incredibly touching, not surprising, I have never lived in a community more in tune to the needs of its members. I am deeply grateful for each of you who covered classes, hugged colleagues, allowed folks to be with their families as needed, and generally just jumped in to ease the pain of the day.
Thank you also for, as best you could, keeping your tears to yourselves and preserving normalcy for our students. That was hard. So hard.
As we move forward through our grief, let’s do it together. That stupid circle of life isn’t going to stop no matter how tired we are of losing. Thank God we have each other.
Reach out if you need support.
Core Values as the Touchstone
In an earlier Heart of the School post, I wrote about how a deep connection with my core values underpins every decision I make. The experiences I’ve had leading my staff through times of extreme pain have made my belief in the process of identifying, connecting with, and using core values as my touchstone even stronger.
I would suggest every leader, at every level, take time to reflect on their own non-negotiable beliefs. Knowing them will help you as you help others navigate through the darkness.
How We Survive
Despite my deepest hopes and wishes, I know that there will be more tragedy in my school and in yours. Below are resources that I have found valuable to help frame my continued response to the suffering of our school people. These focus on helping my staff and colleagues rather than the students. That’s another important topic entirely, but not the one I am tackling today.
- Tips For Helping a Grieving Employee or Colleague (Forbes)
- Making Your Workplace Safe for Grief (Harvard Business Review)
- From Grief to a Teacher’s Own Teachable Moment (Teaching Tolerance)
- Returning to Work When You’re Grieving (Harvard Business Review)
- How to Handle and Help With Workplace Grief (Modern Loss)
- How It Is Maxine Kumin
- Death is Nothing At All Henry Scott Holland
- How We Survive Mark Rickerby
- The LIght of the House Lousie Imogen Guiney
- Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep Mary Elizabeth Frye
In addition to sharing these resources with families as well as staff, you may want to consider gathering photos and classwork of deceased students and sharing them quietly with their parents or other caretakers.
Rita Platt is a principal in Wisconsin and recently received a leadership award from the Kohl Foundation. Her first book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom, is a Routledge/ MiddleWeb publication. It’s a quick read, filled with practical ideas about creating a learning culture in your classroom and school (see this review by Anne Anderson). MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount at the Routledge site with the code MWEB1.