Teacher training and bereavement in the classroom

Teacher training and bereavement in the classroom

Coping with death and dying as a young person is not easy. How can teachers better equip themselves to best support pupils going through such a trauma?

Teacher training and bereavement in the classroom

The onset of the pandemic, and learning to live with its effects has led to a difficult 18 months for young people, not just in our primary and secondary schools, but in higher education as well. The health emergency created by Covid has unavoidably reminded all of us of the nearness of death and how we as a society look after ourselves and others.

But children are resilient. How often do we hear that? Nevertheless coping with death and dying as a young person is not easy, especially the first experience of the loss of a loved one or friend. One of the questions we’re considering is how does this play out in the classroom? And how can our teachers equip themselves to best support their pupils going through such a trauma?

The Art of Dying Well’s James Abbott spoke to Anna Lise Gordon, director of the Institute of Education at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham for episode 26 of our podcast, entitled Grief in the Classroom.

Q. Welcome Anna Lise, how are you?

A. Very well, thank you very much James.

Q. Excellent. Now look, I know that St Mary’s is an initial teacher education ITE provider, and has built some very strong links with the charity Child Bereavement UK. I’m going to ask you a bit of a provocative question to start with, which is, do you currently believe that teachers are well enough equipped to deal with young people who are dealing with grief in the classroom?

A. It’s a provocative question, but the answer is simple. The answer is no. And the reason really for the motivation, I suppose, for getting involved and trying to collaborate more closely with Child Bereavement UK, is precisely for that reason. At St Mary’s University, we train over a thousand new teachers every year, primary and secondary teachers, and they have a very intensive government-dictated to a certain extent, program as part of their initial teacher education. And there are occasions where there are some things which might perhaps be considered more at the margins, dealing with bereavement perhaps would be one of them, that could quite easily be overlooked. And St Mary’s we’re very keen to make sure that those things are front and centre of the work we do with our trainee teachers, so that they’re equipped, ready to embrace all the challenges of the classroom, including a grieving child.

Q. And sadly, I guess it’s more and more prevalent, isn’t it really? Or at least we’re acknowledging that we need to help children more to deal with this. I mentioned in my intro, we come out with what I think is sometimes quite silly phrases don’t we, like children are resilient, they can cope with this; don’t gloss it for children. And whereas that might be true, there’s plenty of education that teachers need in that sensitive area of dealing with a grieving child isn’t there?

A. Completely. And I was very struck by a statistic from one of the research reports from Child Bereavement, UK themselves, where they talk about one in twenty-nine, children aged 5-to-16 will be bereaved or have some experience of grief in that sense. I mean, that’s one child in every class. So that for me – almost as a moral imperative – to make sure that our trainee teachers, whether they’re their primary class teachers or secondary subject teachers, that they are comfortable in talking about bereavement, in supporting a child or young person in that situation, for sure.

Q. We’re also discussing this issue with Tracey Boseley, the national development lead for the education sector at Child Bereavement UK. But I just wanted to ask you about that charity, tell us a bit about the partnership that you formed there.

A. Well, the original contact came from Maggie Doherty, who is the director of the Centre for the Art of Dying Well, which is based at St Mary’s. She’d spoken to me and we had an initial meeting. I was quite struck by the website for Child Bereavement UK. It talks about how they help children and young people, parents, and families to rebuild their lives after a death, or any kind of grieving situation, I suppose. So it was children and young people, parents and families. And, and for me, I just want to add and teachers, because teachers and indeed any people who work with children in youth settings; sports clubs, whatever it might be, have a role to play, whenever there is a death for a child to deal with. So very much from that perspective. 

There’s also a slight initial teacher education perspective, I suppose, in that part of what we’re doing is we have a set of teacher standards. There are eight of them, and one of the teacher standards talks very much about helping our trainee teachers to know how to work with parents and carers, how to really nurture the wellbeing of the children that they’re working with. It’s very much about treating pupils with dignity. And if ever we need to treat pupils with dignity, you know, a situation where there’s death or grieving going on is going to be one of those. 

And then more recently, the government in 2019 has come up with an ITT core content framework, almost like a curriculum, it’s a minimum entitlement, so we have scope to go beyond it. But even within that core content framework, there’s a very strong focus on working with trainee teachers to support the mental health and wellbeing of the children and young people in their care. And there’s a significant emphasis, I would say on the importance of the teacher pupil relationship, and the relationship as well with parents and carers surrounding the child, the relationship with other adults who work in the classrooms – perhaps a teaching assistant, a dinner lady, whoever it might be – who’s working with a child, but that whole kind of wraparound care for a child is important at any time, but perhaps even more acutely vital at a time of some sort of sadness, grief, loss, and so on.

Q. It’s quite difficult, isn’t it? I’ve had my five go through the education system, or in it, of course at the moment. And I often think that it’s quite – I wouldn’t call it blurred lines – but it’s difficult because sometimes as a parent, you sort of find yourself expecting teachers to parent a bit. And I think sometimes perhaps, although I don’t have the experience, the teachers appear to perhaps want the parents to teach a bit more. And I think they’re both quite legitimate ends of the same spectrum. It’s development, it’s education, it’s helping a young person, but I guess we’ve also got to consider the teachers and their wellbeing here as well don’t we? Because it might well be that a kid’s behaving really badly in the classroom, but hasn’t told anyone, and maybe the parents haven’t, or the siblings haven’t, that there’s either a dying person, friend, or family in the background or an actual bereavement. And I suppose the difficulty for a teacher is, you meet what you see, which might be very bad behaviour or something difficult like that. So I suppose it’s teachers need that support to identify where there might be something beyond what they can see in play?

A. Absolutely. I think as well there’s something around bereavement that is particularly difficult for a teacher, however experienced. Our own trainee teachers have had training from Child Bereavement UK now and one of the comments they’ve made is that they’re so nervous of saying the wrong thing. They don’t want to do something that’s going to make it worse for the child. And that fear of just saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is very real. So there’s something around our ability – working in partnership as an initial teacher education provider – with Child Bereavement UK to essentially normalize conversations around death and dying; to have honest conversations with children about feelings, emotions, the impact it might be having on their behaviour, on their progress in study. Death can work in very unexpected ways for young people, and something that really helps us to just support that child better in a much more holistic way, but at the same time, not trying to do all things for that child. The child still has a family and carers and other friends and support around. So it’s part of that, that whole conversation and support around a child.

Q. And I guess it’s nuancing and understanding how to give that room to grieve because sometimes it’s what you don’t say that allows that vital space for a child to experience the grief in a sort of – forgive me for saying – healthy way, in a sense. But without drawing it back to the teachers you hear so much truth to power from young people, from pupils in the classroom, that I guess as an adult, as a teacher, you may well have bottled something up yourself from your own family history. We get to a certain age and suddenly our friends are dying of various different things. And sometimes a child can say something quite poignant and quite to the point and it can affect us emotionally. So teachers need to be prepared for that as well, the stuff it brings up in them.

A. Yes, absolutely. And my own professional research is around resilience and wellbeing of early career teachers, not specifically bereavement, but just generally how they cope with that adjustment into a new professional environment. And it is precisely what you’ve described there, it’s the unpredictability of what comes up on a day by day basis. It’s the things that children say intentionally or not, that can sometimes rock the boat.

Trainee teachers often talk about the whole training process; the education process of becoming a teacher being like a roller coaster. With a roller coaster, the ups and downs, the highs are great. The lows are pretty awful. And you know a bereavement for a child, or indeed the death of a child in a class, would be a real low point. And so we look a lot about managing the teacher’s own wellbeing; making sure that they’re placing themselves first, their own health, their eating, sleeping habits, all those kinds of things, sharing that with them because they need to be in a good place to be able to be the right kind of support and teacher for a child in their care as well. So it is very much part and parcel of the same thing.

I was interested when you said that it might bring up memories for them. We had one of the webinars which Child Bereavement UK ran for all of our trainee teachers last year, in the feedback from one of the participants, she said that she suddenly realized halfway through the session – this webinar was about an hour I think – there was a light bulb moment because she suddenly realized that the webinar was exactly for her as a 12 year old, where her grandparents had both been very sadly killed in a car accident. And at the time there had been no support for her in school. And she’d sort of muddled through and had been very conscious of not talking about it at home because it would upset her parents. And just that bottling up that happens. And the realization through this webinar that if schools are there and open to hearing what might might come their way, we might help to support a young person better in that process.

So you’re absolutely right, that teaching is a wonderful, wonderful privilege, but has also the potential to rock our boat on a daily basis really, to be honest.

Q. You’ve got me thinking actually that in a sense, there are two ways of looking at child bereavement. There’s the child who is bereaved, and also potentially – god forbid – that a child dies whilst at either at school or in a school setting, or the impact on a classroom if someone’s very sick or has an instant death, an unpredictable death, there’s that side isn’t there, and that must be terribly difficult. And I remember one example, the primary school my kids went to, a particular boy who had left the school, but at his next school had been on a ski trip I think it was, and very, very sadly died in a coach accident. And it was the impact on the head teacher of the school from the previous year, the primary school. And it sends ripples doesn’t it? And I don’t think often either the senior leaders or indeed the teachers, or indeed the kids in the classroom that knew that person very well, are particularly well-equipped to deal with it. Are they?

A. No. I’m a governor in a large secondary school and there was a death of a pupil in really quite unfortunate circumstances. And there’s that moment of death and dealing with the immediate; the counselling support that came in for the children. There was a link with the local parish church – it was a church school – very much in the moment for not only the pupils, but also for the staff, as you say it’s as much of an impact for them as well. But I think my own learning from that experience was that it’s not just the moment; you know, death happens and it’s an event in itself, I suppose you could describe, but bereavement is a much longer process, that can be ongoing for years and years. And we never quite know what it is that’s going to suddenly trigger that back into our minds or upset us, or I don’t know, cause anxiety or worry.

We even see that at the university, students who join and come to us as undergraduate 18 year old’s and have never really thought about, or worried about the transition to university, suddenly they’re on their own away from home and all sorts of things come back and worry them in those initial few weeks and months. Occasionally that will be the death of a relative or even a pet actually, I mean things can send you spiraling very quickly in quite unexpected ways.

Q. And I guess some young people, I’m not sure if this is age dependent, but might even struggle to speak to their own parents about how they feel about the death of a grandparent, or the death of a friend or something like that. And maybe feel more comfortable speaking to a assistant or a teacher or someone in a classroom setting. Do you find that as well?

A. Yes, definitely. And I think that’s one of my motivations in a way for making sure our trainee teachers are well prepared, because the trainee teacher, when they’re first on a placement in a school, they’re an additional member of staff there. They’re observing, they’re working alongside the children and young people, very much in teacher assistant mode. And they may be the one who the child in the class first talks to because the teacher’s busy – the teacher’s at the front directing things, moving around, sorting everything out. But the additional pair of hands, the teaching assistant, the parent who comes in to help with reading, the trainee teacher, they potentially are the one who will pick up on those conversations and they need to be ready because they never come when you you’re expecting them. You can’t sort of suddenly say to a child, I’m sorry, let me just look back at my notes from my university lecture three weeks ago, it doesn’t work like that. You have to be absolutely ready and there for the child in the moment.

Q. Well I have to say Anna Lise I like the way that you’re passionate about this and see the importance of it. It does, to me seem like it’s a vital component of that initial teacher education, actually. So just finally, with all this in mind, you were unequivocal at the start, it’s not where it needs to be yet in terms of how teachers are trained. But obviously this is a very positive program, delighted to hear it. How do you see this bereavement awareness training developing in the future?

A. Well I suppose we needed to try it out. We’ve done a pilot this year. All of our trainee teachers were offered bereavement awareness training online. It was in the pandemic, so that worked just fine. And I was very struck by one response in the evaluation, 99.6% – I mean that’s pretty much a 100% isn’t it – said that the training had increased their confidence to deal with bereavement issues. So that for me – that’s a springboard. Okay, it means we’ve got to do more of it, and the next year, so next academic year, we’re going to offer the same to all of our trainee teachers, the basic bereavement awareness training session, but in discussion with Child Bereavement UK we’ll also be exploring ways of opening that or extending it rather, I suppose, to some of the other things that are on offer through their training program.

So it could be a session around dealing with death by suicide, for example. How to have honest conversations with children and young people about death could be about working with young people with additional needs, with bereavement as the focus if you like, a little bit more about policy in school, perhaps we’ll do some work and invite some of our partnership schools. We work with over 650 partnership schools. So if we can involve them in some of this training as well, in terms of policy and having the right procedures in place in advance of them being needed, rather than as a sort of reactive response to an unfortunate death. Wellbeing of teachers absolutely will be in there, so we’re broadening out the training offer to our own trainee teachers, but also linking to our partnership schools more widely. And then of course, we’ve got a research angle, which we’re very keen to explore in a bit more detail.

We’re still developing that slightly, but it will be something focusing particularly on the lived experiences of trainee teachers. It’s an under developed area of research, so whatever we can find out about how we can best support trainee teachers in this whole area to inform future curriculum design; and future resources for schools to use; for teacher training providers to use with their trainee teacher; then so much the better. So that’s our next step. We’ll need to find some funding and some time and energy to be able to do that. But as you say, we’re extremely motivated to manage that. 

Q. And of course we are too at the Centre for the Art of Dying Well, in the same building, which is excellent. So Anna Lise thank you ever so much for giving us your time, thanks for your passion and the fact that you’re pushing and developing this project in such a positive way for our young people in schools. I think it’s vital and do come back and tell us in the future how it’s been developed and how it’s going.

A. It’d be a pleasure. 

Listen to episode 26 of the Art of Dying Well podcast, Grief in the Classroom.

The Art of Dying Well