I’m sure you have been there.
You walk into the staff room to get a fresh cup of tea and find a colleague hunched over. “Are you okay?” you ask, knowing full well they are not. As they look up with red eyes full of tears you begin to hear what has caused the crisis in a broken sobbing voice.
We all have those moments. Sometimes they are caused by events that occur in the classroom. Bereavement, health concerns, money worries and relationship issues can all hit emotional trigger points and leave us distraught.
As a colleague you want to help them, but how? Below is a simple guide that you might find helpful.
The first thing to do is to recognise that this is going to take some time. If you are the first on the scene then you will need to make sure any classes they are responsible for are covered. If there is already a small group surrounding them then you can give those people jobs to do.
Send someone to pass a message to whoever supports cover, send another to your class to supervise.
Find a space
Find an office or a similar place for you to talk with the person for about 20-30 mins undisturbed.
Meet them there in five minutes
On your way check the classes. It’s ok to leave them to get there on their own if it means you can arrive confident the students are settled and with a large supply of tissues.
Listen to them
This is the hardest step.
You might have to start them off with a simple question like “What’s happened?” Listening is the most difficult thing. You will instantly try to draw similarities between their experience and your own.
You will have urges to find solutions to any problems they have. Squash those urges as much as possible. Just listen.
It’s ok to ask questions
Don’t be afraid to ask questions in the pauses. It will help you and them clarify what has happened and help them to process the event. It’s also ok to make notes, just tell them why.
Stay the course
Sometimes the things you can hear are very emotive to you and will elucidate a strong emotional response. Just stay the course and know that you can deal with your feelings later. Right now, they are your priority.
Follow up and follow through
Make sure any actions that need to be carried out are followed up that day. This might involve informing a line manager. The next day make a point to get in touch with a simple message just to show you care.
Supporting a colleague or student in crisis can be a rewarding but exhausting process. Try to find time to discuss it with someone later in the day. You might have to maintain confidentiality, but there is value to sharing what you did. This can help you get ready for the next day.
WHAT ABOUT STUDENTS?
It’s worth pointing out that this guide is not designed for students who are just upset. Often those playground and friendship issues do not need this level of response.
When dealing with a primary student who is in crisis it can get a little more complex. While this list still applies there is a large safeguarding aspect to be considered.
With students they may not be able to fully verbalise why they feel this way, but by actively listening and resisting the urge to solve their problem you can find out enough information to support them in the next steps.
Teaching is a caring profession. I am sure you are as grateful as I am that these events are not commonplace.
Adam Robbins is a head of department at a large comprehensive school, where he also oversees and supports teacher development. Adam’s new book Middle Leadership Mastery (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now and is available at https://amzn.to/3jO1ein