Across the nation at this time of year, teachers are coming to terms with the loss of colleagues for whom family or career has meant a move to another school. We spend a third of our lives at work, and for teachers most of the time not spent in the classroom is spent in the departmental office. So it’s normal for family-like bonds to form, and yet there’s little guidance on how to cope when that bond is broken.
Most readers will be familiar with the Kubler-Ross theory of the stages of grief. Famously, Michael Fullan adapted it in Leading in a Culture of Change to discuss staff reactions to new policies. Here, we are reclaiming it for a more personal part of our professional lives. Our focus is on the one who stays behind – but it’s worth noting that the departing colleague is likely to go through the same process.
Without further ado then, here are the seven stages of losing a colleague and what you should (and shouldn’t) do as you navigate through them.
The first reaction is usually an understandable state of disbelief, which can last a few hours or even days. Who is going to get the milk in? Will my new colleague appreciate my love of country music? Confusion reigns.
DO: Chat to other staff about it. Maybe meditate.
DON’T: Cry and ask Chess Club what you did wrong.
The next phase is to reject reality. If you don’t accept that they have got a new job, then it hasn’t happened. They’ve just asked you for the photocopy code for the 80th time this term, and they will again.
DO: Get your thoughts down in a journal.
DON’T: Ignore your work buddy by throwing yourself into writing the departmental improvement plan.
Eventually you go from sad to mad, and it’s easy to get very petty when that happens. You stop lending your stapler. You start playing jazz in the office. You tell the librarian that they never encouraged students to take books out. You get angry with yourself too. You hogged the microwave. You didn’t notice their new haircut even though they had highlights. You drove them away!
DO: Sing along to the Tears For Fears classic Shout at the top of your voice.
DON’T: Pour out-of-date milk into their cup of tea.
Now irrational behaviour kicks in. You make sure the kettle is filled every morning. You pop into their lesson to tell them it was ‘outstanding’. You ask whether you can photocopy anything for them and genuinely mean it. It’s nice, but it won’t bring them back.
DO: Make a list of things that will make you happy next term.
DON’T: Put them on the list.
When you finally realise that they are definitely leaving, you are overwhelmed by it. They feel the same, and slowly personal items start disappearing, like their favourite mug and pictures of Jason Statham. Days pass as files are transferred on to memory sticks. Misery fills the air. It’s as if Ofsted are coming.
DO: Surround yourself with radiators, not drains.
DON’T: Attend any meetings. They will only make you feel worse.
It’s turnaround time. Amid moments of sadness, you start to find ways of dealing with the situation through experimentation. You eye up their desk. You find other people to hang out with at break times. This is the road to acceptance.
DO: Try their chair.
DON’T: Try their chair when they are in it.
Finally, you realise you can still make plans for the future. After all, there is a leaving do to organise and new colleagues to induct into The Chicks fandom.
DO: Celebrate your time together.
DON’T: Write a rambling leaving speech for the last day of term. Everyone wants to go home, OK?
Gavin Simpson and Natasha Lawrence share an office in a school in Hertfordshire. This summer, Natasha leaves. This is their way of processing that fact. They think they’re at the acceptance stage, but may still be bargaining.