School Crisis Response:
Reflections of a Team Leader
Jeffrey C. Roth
© Copyright 2015
Death of a Kindergarten Teacher
When a beloved kindergarten teacher dies, fellow teachers and staff, students, and parents—many of whom she had taught, grieved for her. The school and district community came together for a memorial assembly to celebrate her inspirational life. This chapter includes sample letters and memos informing and preparing parents and teachers of her impending death, and responding to community needs. Themes are: 1) preparing for a death; 2) grieving a loved teacher; 3) explaining death to children; 4) reaffirming children’s safety and security; 5) bibliotherapy; 6) support for family and for school staff.
Some of the most difficult and complicated responses over the years follow the death of teachers. Sometimes the death is sudden. More often, it is the result of a long illness. Some teachers had been on leave for many months, while others worked until weeks or even days before death. These teachers had often endeared themselves to both students and staff. Death sometimes touched students and their parents across grades and schools. While it is important to inform people across schools, it is not always clear how far to inform across a district.
A kindergarten teacher revered at the elementary school where she taught for over thirty years died after a long fight with cancer. She began teaching at a young age, and with characteristic determination, she taught until several weeks before her death.
News of her passing occurred at an elementary school with a caring, mostly veteran teaching staff dedicated to the students and to each other. The school climate was positive. Counselor Helen Lareau had implemented a school-wide conflict resolution and anti-bullying program (PREPaRE Model: Developing Resilience and School Connectedness). With the support of Principal David Moore, the counselor embraced the task of mitigating the impact of the teacher’s imminent death by providing ongoing information, training, and group discussions for teachers, who would need sufficient emotional stability to care for themselves and their students (PREPaRE Model: Exercising School Crisis Plans). David kept the staff apprised of their colleague’s struggle and of ways to support her family. In consultation with the district, Helen provided psycho-educational materials and preparation for teachers and families about the grieving process, children’s reactions to death, how to reaffirm a sense of security, when to refer for more support, and how to use creative activities to facilitate self-expression (PREPaRE Model: Informational Documents/ Caregiver Training).
While the teacher’s death was anticipated, it was still a shock when she died. The resources provided by the principal, counselor, teachers, and staff were extraordinary. Working through their sadness, they supported their students and each other. After educating themselves about how to talk with young children about impending death, they used age-appropriate language to keep students informed of the teacher’s struggle. They
prepared to sensitively share the sad news about the teacher who had taught many current students and also many of their parents. They planned ways to help the students remember the teacher and the lessons she had taught them. She taught a valuable lesson about how to live life. She loved her work and courageously continued teaching for as long as she could.
Limited District Level Response
Principal David Moore invited a limited number of district responders familiar to the school staff to assist the building level response (PREPaRE Model: Matching Level of Response with Crisis Event Variables). A primary responder task was to support teachers needing assistance in their classrooms. At the faculty briefing, I reminded teachers they needed to take care of themselves to be able to take care of the students. They didn’t need to “tough it out.” There was crisis counseling for faculty and students. The teachers were used to being honest with their students and were reassured that “It is okay to answer questions honestly—on a level the students can understand. It is also okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’ It is okay for the kids to see you sad.”
Substitutes were available for teachers who needed to take a break or to get crisis counseling. While the degree of preparation for teachers and students was remarkable, some needed more support.
A caring teacher tearfully invited me to her first grade classroom because she believed she could not discuss the death of her colleague on her own. The students all knew the kindergarten teacher and most had been in her class the previous year. We talked about our sadness. We listened as the children expressed their thoughts and feelings. We talked about missing her. We reassured them that this kind of illness and death usually happens to older people (PREPaRE Model: Reaffirm Physical Health and Perceptions of Safety and Security). We began talking about pleasant memories and lessons learned from the teacher. The conversation expanded as the children shared stories about the deaths of relatives and pets. This afforded a secondary triage opportunity to identify students who had recently experienced a death and might benefit from follow-up (Brock et al., 2009).
The visit included bibliotherapy—a reading of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (Viorst, 1972) —a comforting story about coping with the death of a pet cat as part of the cycle of life. In the book, the family expresses fond memories of Barney. One student asked about going to heaven. I acknowledged that many people believe that people and pets go to heaven after they die. Others understood the meaning of death in different ways. The children were encouraged to talk more with their parents and families about what they believe. They were reminded that there were people in school they could talk to—their teacher and other grown-ups who care and who understand their feelings. When I left the room, the teacher managed a smile through her sorrow.
The school planned and presented a beautiful memorial assembly for the school and district community (PREPaRE Model: Special Considerations When Memorializing an Incident). It was an upbeat celebration of a life—an inspiration to lead good lives, reflecting the lessons so many of us began learning in kindergarten.
Summary of Lessons Learned: Reflection and Discussion
1. In situations when there is a protracted terminal illness, there is opportunity for beneficial preparation of staff and students.
What are some specific ways that students and staff can prepare for the death of a teacher or student?
2. Classroom teachers can be prepared to work with students coping with death, but can also benefit from the option of requesting in-class support from an experienced responder.
As a responder, how might you engage a teacher requesting in-class support in conversation about ways to best provide support?
3. Bibliotherapy—reading developmentally appropriate books on topics relevant to the crisis—can be a useful tool for educating and comforting students, and encouraging discussion.
When might bibliotherapy be useful, and what are some ideas for selecting an appropriate book?
The following are samples of letters, edited for confidentiality that kept a school community informed and educated throughout this difficult time.
School District/School Letterhead Date
I learned yesterday from Mrs. __________ that she had made the difficult decision to remain home for the rest of the school year. As she rests and adjusts to new medication, she anticipates a rebuilding of her energy and strength. She wanted me to be sure to let you know she is facing the coming weeks with a “positive attitude” and hopes to visit the school in the spring.
Our counselor, Mrs._________ and I will meet with the children tomorrow to let them know Mrs._______’s illness required her to take medicine that makes her very tired. As a result, she must stay home now to rest. We will let the children know Mrs._______will not be returning to school.
In seeking a substitute for Mrs._____________, our priority is finding someone particularly sensitive to the needs and questions of our children as they cope with the absence of this most special and important person in their lives. I am hopeful someone can be hired in time to start on Monday and will let you know if that is the case.
For the understanding and support I know you will provide Mrs.__________, your children, and our school family, I thank you.
Please feel free to call me.
P.S. Should you care to send notes or cards to Mrs. _________, simply send them to school and we will make sure she receives them.
To: All Staff
From: [School Counselor]
Re: Information that was relayed to our Kindergarten students today about Mrs. _________. I think you may also get some questions from your students.
[Principal] and I are telling the children that Mrs. __________ is sick and that she will not be coming back to school. We are explaining that she is taking new medicine that makes her very tired and that she needs to get a lot of rest. Make sure they understand that good doctors are caring for her.
We will tell the children their new teacher is going to be Ms.________.
If you get a question re: her having cancer, I would answer honestly that she does have cancer, but that not all cancers are the same. Mrs. __________is taking the right medicine for cancer and is resting and taking good care of herself. Tell the children that cancer is not contagious so no one can catch it.
Please watch for signs of distress from the children and call me if you need to.
To: All Staff
From: [School Counselor]
Re: Card Making Session,
Here are some facts we need to relay to the children during the card-making activity. They need to know that one of our teachers, Mrs. _________, is sick and that she is not coming back to school. She has cancer and is taking a new medicine that makes her tired. She needs lots of rest. She is being cared for by excellent doctors.
It is important for the children to know that not all cancer is the same. There are many different kinds. There are some kinds that are completely cured after the person takes a special medicine. With other kinds, people do not get completely well again. Mrs. ________ is taking the right kind of medicine for her illness.
Will she die? We don’t know. Just remember she is taking her medicine and listening to her doctors.
Some children may relate an experience their family has had with cancer.
Watch for signs of distress among your children. Please let me know of any children who are distressed and call me if you need to.
Then have the children make cards. Be sure to read each card to make sure it is appropriate. It is okay if a child prefers not to make a card.
School District/School Letterhead
Today, all of our students were given an opportunity to make cards of greeting and encouragement for a teacher many of them had as they began their school experience in kindergarten, Mrs. ____________. For those of you who may not know, Mrs. ___________ decided last week that dealing with the cancer she has faced for the past two years was making teaching too difficult to continue. In describing this situation to their classes, teachers identified the cause of Mrs. ___________’s illness and, with great care, honesty and sensitivity, addressed questions and comments raised by the children. The important need to openly express different emotions, feelings, and remembrances was recognized in each room as I’m sure it will be in your homes.
At this time in our school family, your understanding, support, and prayers are deeply valued.
To: All Staff
From: [School Counselor]
Re: Process for informing students
If the notification of death comes during the school day, there will be a letter sent home with the students telling the parents what has happened and asking them to inform their children. No announcement to the faculty will be made until after the children leave, when the teachers will be asked to attend a short faculty meeting. Letters for the children to take home will be distributed on the buses.
If notification comes after school hours, we will let staff know by way of the phone tree. We will let parents know the next school day also via a phone tree. The parents will be told what has happened and that we have talked with the children. They will need to talk further with their children especially in terms of religious beliefs.
A 7:30 am faculty meeting will be a time of sharing for ourselves and to prepare for the day.
Regardless of when we receive notification, classroom sessions will be conducted with these goals:
- Help the children understand what has happened or inform them about what has happened.
- Express their feelings.
- Have their feelings recognized and validated.
- Begin normal routine with flexibility.
Be watchful for vulnerable students.
I am including information to help us handle this situation. Please read the attached pages and note any questions you may have.
We can help ourselves prepare by remembering while helping the children understand what happened that we need to take care of our own feelings. I am suggesting that two adults (classroom teacher and additional support person) be present for the individual classroom discussions. Do not be afraid to ask for support at any time; we are making arrangements now to help with release time/class coverage.
It is important to share the facts about death, to address children’s fears and fantasies, and to support their grief through the expression of their feelings. Some children may be less affected, while others will need to tell you about their experiences with death. Be patient and listen; you do not need to tell them about your experiences. Help them put their feelings into words and let them know you understand what they are saying by “reflecting back” to them what you have heard. Let the children know that all feelings are okay; try to help them remember “special things” about Mrs._______. Feelings can range from sadness, to anger, to fear of abandonment, just as expressions can be sad one moment and joyous (running out to play) the next. All of this is normal. Be prepared to have the subject come up later.
For relief after the classroom sessions, I recommend that the children be permitted to go out for an extra recess.
School District/School Letterhead
Dear [School] Parents:
We learned today that Mrs. _______________ died last evening. For the past several years, she fought with great courage to overcome cancer and only two weeks ago made the decision to stop doing that which she did with unique and superior skill, teaching her kindergarten classes.
Tomorrow morning our teachers will discuss with each class this loss to our school family. Our counselor, psychologist, and other staff members will provide additional emotional support to children who need it for as long as necessary in the days ahead.
The viewing is at 7 pm tomorrow evening at __________Funeral Home at _______________. The service is at noon Thursday.
To both honor and celebrate Mrs. __________’s commitment to providing almost 1500 [School] students with a remarkably strong and loving start to their formal schooling, our school will be closed __[Day]_[Date]______ afternoon. Students will be dismissed at 11 am [Date]__________.
Thank you for your sensitivity and thoughtfulness in this time of sadness for all of us.
P.S. Attached is information prepared by [School Counselor] to assist you in addressing this situation at home.
School District/School Letterhead
As you now know, our school and community have lost a treasured family member. As we try to help our children cope with this death, here are a few ideas that may help in talking to your child.
In addition to the need for information that is clear and understandable, it is necessary for your child to be able to express his/her feelings and have them recognized. Encourage your child to talk with the assurance that all feelings are okay; help your child feel supported by listening carefully and answering questions honestly. When we hear of another’s death, our own feelings about death often surface. Like adults, children think of their own experiences and feelings about death. Remember that these feelings may focus on the person who has recently died, someone who died previously, an impending death, or anxiety about death in general. You may wish to talk about your religious beliefs and explain death in those terms; in that way, the loss may make more sense and be more acceptable to your child.
When faced with the death of someone close to them, children may go through four stages of grief: 1) numbness 2) disorganization that may show itself with crying, loss of sleep or appetite, irritability, or apathy; 3) grieving in which the child may express fear, sadness, fear of abandonment, or anger; 4) acceptance. Do not be afraid to express your feelings of sadness. Encourage your child to reminisce about his/her experiences with Mrs. ________.
- “What is death?”
Do say: “Death is when the body totally stops breathing.”
Do not say: “Death is when you go to sleep.”
Announcing the death
- Do say: “She died.”
Do not say:
a) “We lost _______” (Children can get lost.)
b) “She expired” (Library cards expire.)
c) “It is when you pass away, pass on, or are buried six feet under.”
- “What happens after the body stops working?”
You can explain these possibilities: “Some people believe the soul or spirit lives in another place (e.g. heaven) or the person who died lives on in your memories.” This is the ideal time to explain your religious beliefs.
- “Why do people die?”
Dying is a natural part of life. All living things—plants, animals, people—die.
- “What is going to happen at school?” Bonnie, did you want to move the next line under the question like response to previous questions? You will have a class meeting to discuss what happened. You will have a chance to talk about your feelings.
Please feel free to contact me for further information. Thank you very much.
School District/School Letterhead
We trust the following information will help you and your children prepare for coming events related to the death of Mrs. _________. Many of you have addressed with your families what has happened, answered questions about it and discussed values and ways of dealing with these difficult circumstances. We have also taken time this morning, in each homeroom, to speak with students and give them an opportunity to share their feelings, thoughts, and remembrances of Mrs. _______.
Tomorrow’s schedule is different from what we indicated in yesterday’s letter in that the funeral service will take place at 10:30. We still plan to dismiss at 11 am. A number of our teachers will leave at 10 to attend the service, but we have made plans for classroom supervision in their absence. Since we are expected to provide a meal to children before they leave, we ask that you prepare a bag lunch for eating in the classroom. (Beverages will still be available as will the regular school lunch.) We would greatly appreciate if homeroom mothers come in around 10 to help.
Promptness in picking up children at dismissal is important.
Attending a viewing and/or funeral service is a significant experience for young children and the decision is one that you as parents will carefully consider.
We would like you to know a memorial celebration of Mrs. _______’s gifted teaching and influence on young lives is planned for an evening next week, most likely [Day] or [Day]. This will be a family event at which children and adults may share special times, poems or pictures in remembering this wonderful human being. A _____________ Kindergarten Fund is organized to accept contributions that will be used for [School] students. We will send details in the next few days.
Please call with any questions or thoughts. Your support keeps our school family close.
Should you care to send a note or card of condolence to the ____________ family, the address is: __________________________________.
This chapter was taken from School Crisis Response: Reflections of a Team Leader (in press) by Jeffrey C. Roth. Please feel free to use or copy in any way that may be helpful.