Interview with Joseph Miller

Joseph A. Miller has been principal of Ridgewood, New York's Intermediate School 77 since 2003. He has over 25 years service as an educator in both public and private schools working from the elementary level to high school. He has a BA from Queens College in Flushing, NY; an MDiv. from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, NY; an MS Ed from the College of New Rochelle in School Supervision and Administration and a graduate certificate in Thanatology also from the College of New Rochelle. He is certified as a thanatologist (CT) by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC).

Q: As a principal and school administrator, you have taken an active interest in supporting students and staff during crisis and loss. How did you become interested in grief and bereavement?
A: My interest initially comes from my personal experiences and my own journey. I went to Catholic seminary and was ordained as a priest in 1989. While we studied pastoral counseling, I realized early on that I felt very ill-equipped to actually support those who were grieving. And around the same time I had a good friend who was dying very young, and even with my training I “froze” when I went to visit him.

I began to volunteer in a wonderful nursing home/hospice setting for nuns in their Motherhouse, and was often privileged to be with some of them as they were dying. These women helped me see not just the sadness around death, but also the life to be celebrated and honored.
I began teaching in Catholic schools, and then moved into the public school system. In my first year at a school, a student died. I remember the staff struggling to deal with the death, and the fact that there was so little support for them. And although the school brought in outside counselors, I realized that while those counselors may have been well-trained, they didn’t know our kids—we were the ones who knew our kids, so why weren’t we the ones supporting them?
Q: How did those earlier experiences shape your work now as both a principal and a certified Thanatologist?
A: In 2003, after receiving my Masters in Educational Administration, I became the principal at a middle school. Prior to my arrival, two students had been in a fight outside the school and one of them was killed. The story was barely covered by the media, and the school itself had not addressed the impact of the situation. When I arrived, morale was terrible; it was as though the life had been sucked out of the place.
About a month or two after arriving, I realized that it was the birthday of the boy who died, so I mentioned his name and asked for a moment of remembrance. Staff and students told me later that it was the first time his name had been spoken or that the situation had been addressed at all. All of these experiences made me recognize my need for more professional education in counseling, and that, combined with my varied experience around grief and loss, led me to become a certified Thanatologist through the program at the College of New Rochelle.
This training has opened up a whole new perspective for me, especially in terms of how I can work with and converse with the guidance counselors and psychologists on my staff.
Q: Your school has developed an extensive crisis response plan that includes responses to many different scenarios. Why did you feel it was important to be proactive about these types of protocols?
A: I like to think of it as an insurance plan—you hope you won’t need it, but it’s very good to have in place when you do. All schools have some sort of plan, but many of them rely heavily on bringing in outside support personnel in the time of crisis. When you have your own plan that is organic to your own school and staff, you can much more easily adapt it to suit specific situations.
An increased understanding of issues surrounding death and grief can have all sorts of unexpected impacts. For instance, one of our teachers experienced the death of her long-term partner. Because she was a lesbian, she was somewhat wary of sharing her story with me. I was grateful that she did; I was able to offer her support, and even discussed the concept of disenfranchised grief with her. I even ended up (with her permission) using her and her partner’s story in a paper that I wrote on the subject.
Q: What are some other steps you’ve taken in training your staff and preparing them to help support grieving students?
A: Just as I discovered in my own background, many trained school counselors and psychologists had not received a great deal of education in grief and loss. One way we have worked together to learn more is through a Book/Study group; we’ll choose a book (fiction or non-fiction) that deals with death and dying and then get together to discuss what we’ve learned. This process has been a great learning tool, but one point that is important to emphasize—it is an educational experience, not a group therapy session. These groups can bring up very personal issues for some people, but those should be addressed in another setting.
Another suggestion that is sometimes overlooked is providing some training and support to the front office staff. Realistically, if a family member calls the school or comes to the school to get their student in a time of family crisis or loss, those front-office staff will be that family’s first contact. These staff members can really benefit from, and feel supported by, some training in issues of grief and loss so that they feel more prepared in those situations.
Q: Some schools or school districts may feel overwhelmed thinking about how to incorporate grief and bereavement support into their work. But you’ve said as a principal that “A package of note cards proved to be one of the wisest investments I’ve ever made.” Can you talk more about some practical, accessible ways that schools can support grieving staff and students?
A: Those note cards really are a significant component! I make it a point to reach out to staff, to student’s families; I even am able to share my condolences with a staff member when he or she loses a parent or someone else close to them.
While taking on these issues may seem daunting, I have never found resistance in my school; and when I speak at conferences or in other professional settings about our experiences, many administrators and teachers tell me that they wish these discussions were happening in their school as well. One reason it has made sense to me for the school to drive these discussions is because we know our kids, and they know us; in times of crisis or loss, those connections and that trust can make the difference in providing honest communication and real support.
Q: How has the increased dependence on email, texting, and social media re-defined the way that schools communicate with staff and families in times of crisis?
A: While I generally use email to communicate with staff, I recognize that there are many situations where face-to-face communication is essential. Each situation requires a thoughtful strategy. For instance, I would think carefully about what information regarding a loss or death should be shared in a general announcement; instead, we would gather groups of kids with trusted counselors or other staff to share the information in a face-to-face setting.
It’s critical too to know your students and your staff. I often say as a principal I’m expected to have all the answers—and in my school, because of the demographics, I need to have them in both English and Spanish! So we have developed templates of letters that deal with a variety of situations—the death of a student, the death of a staff member, etc. And we have those letters ready in both languages; you can’t wait until a situation occurs and then think, “Wait, we need to hurry and get this letter translated.”
Q: Do you recommend that schools develop policies about memorialization?

A: It is essential that schools have a process for memorialization. Different situations may require different parameters. For instance, if there has been a suicide, you do not want to give the wrong message; you can memorialize the student without glorifying the death. In any situation, the most critical component is to not lie or “play dumb;” you lose credibility quickly with students if you are not telling the truth.
Q: As both a principal and a trained thanatologist, what are some common misconceptions that you see about adolescents and grief?
A: Adolescents grieve, just as adults do—but differently. Some children and even adolescents may have what Ken Doka calls a “short feeling span”—when they receive information about a death, they may not have an overly emotional response right away, but may go back to their routine. But it is critical to recognize that they may revisit that loss, at many different times and in many different ways. For instance, we are working with a young man now who has some significant behavioral issues. Although we had been making progress, recently he had shown some new inappropriate behaviors and I called him in to talk. After a while, he noted that he was “mad at his dad.” But he had never mentioned his father, and I knew the father was not present in his life. Turns out that’s why he was mad—many other of his friends had fathers or other older men in their lives, and he did not. So, in essence, he was grieving a loss, and that loss was showing up in his life in a way that it may not have done the previous year.
Q: What role can hospices and other community organizations play in partnering with schools to support grieving students and staff?
A: I utilize many resources from both Hospice Foundation of America (HFA) and the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC). Written pamphlets and publications can be great ways to start discussions; I also share them with other schools coping with loss. Both of these national organizations offer excellent webinars—all administrators and teachers need ongoing professional development, and a webinar on grief and loss can be an easily accessible and affordable training tool.
We also have connected with local hospices and hospitals that offer grief support groups and camps for teens; local churches and even funeral homes are also excellent community resources. Schools shouldn’t feel that they are in this alone, and these community organizations are always pleased to connect with, and support, the schools in their own communities.