As I began my teaching career, I became very close, very fast with my colleagues. As a single guy living on my own away from my own family in Ontario, my work friends became my family. We laughed and cried and shared moments beyond teaching. We cared for each other.
I can distinctly remember a conversation with my team teaching parter who was somewhat terrified to inform our principal that she was serioulsy ill and was going to be needing to take some time off work. The tears were visible - the outward expression of fear and the unknown. Sadly, the illness was very closely related to stress, and according to her, the biggest stressor was how she was going to tell the principal. I was somewhat surprised, because I thought it was a pretty easy thing to do. "Just tell her", I can remember saying. "I know, I know" she said behind the tears as we walked together down to the office where she would initiate the conversation.
Over the past few years I have found myself on the other side of that conversation. Now I'm the one that the staff have to come to. Each time one of my colleagues comes to my office door and greets me with "do you have a minute to talk?", or I receive an email saying "can I meet with you?" I recognize that my role shifts a tiny bit, moving from the principal, to that of caring colleague.
The pending conversations can be followed by unwelcome news, usually dealing with health concerns, involving themselves, their children, their spouse, or their parents and extended family. There is often, as with my team partner all those years ago, tears and sadness. There is also another feeling I have had trouble explaining.
Not all conversations are sad. Some are joyful - "I just wanted to let you know that my husband / my wife and I are expecting a baby". Some are exciting - "My spouse won a trip and I am going to need to take a week off work". And some shockingly wonderful - "I am thinking about a career change and am going to go back to school to pursue a law degree". Despite the nature of the conversation there does seem, from my end at least, that a conversation with the "boss" can be a real defining moment at that particular stage of the process.
Not too long ago, I experienced that range of emotion myself. I had to inform my own boss that I would be needing to take some time to return home to Thunder Bay to be with my ailing father. It was the closest I have come to explaining that feeling I have had trouble with. For me, it was relief. I guess it meant that I was able to step away from my job to deal with something more important. My boss was nothing but helpful and it meant the world to me at that time. Even though I knew she would be supportive, there was something about just telling her that made me feel better. It was kind of like getting permission to deal with what needed to be dealt with.
I realize, and humbly accept the responsibility I have in my role as principal to be able to listen to, support, comfort and celebrate with my staff during these moments in their lives. I know and care for my staff. In that way, we are family. We're here for each other, and we're here in our best times and worst. My hope is, that as a caring colleague my staff never have to experience the stress of telling me what they need to say.
I was in the classroom when my team partner came back after her meeting with the principal all those years ago. She was still crying, but she was laughing too in that wild way we do when we're overwhelmed with grief, joy and relief. "What did she say?", I asked. "She gave me a big hug and told me it was going to be ok." Of course it was, because making things better is what a family does.