real life

The empty seat: The one thing I hoped I'd never face as a teacher.

This teacher is known to Mamamia, but has chosen to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of her school and its students.

“How would you respond if one of your students died suddenly, and you had to go to class and see their empty seat every day?” my interviewer asked. At 18 years old, I didn’t have the answer.

As a Year 12 student, I had applied for a teaching scholarship, and travelled over 600 kilometres to Blacktown on two days notice to interview. I left the interview feeling completely deflated. Like I had been set up to fail. How could anyone have an answer to such an innately personal question? I’d never experienced adult grief, let alone stood in front of a class. I was still a student myself. Needless to say, I didn’t get the scholarship.

In the two years that followed, I moved away from home and was half way through my teaching degree when the unimaginable happened: my younger sister died suddenly, just four months shy of her 18th birthday. Suddenly, I had a whole new perspective on life, death and grief.

When I finished my degree in 2015, I was appointed to a small country school, just two hours from my home town. When people asked me about my new job, my favourite thing was always, always “the kids.”

Despite having experience in a number of schools across northern New South Wales throughout my teaching degree, I had permanently landed at one with some of the best students I had ever taught. And while I loved being challenged by clever, gifted students, my favourite thing about teaching was always helping ‘the strugglers’ achieve. As a teacher, there is honestly nothing more rewarding than seeing a student’s ‘ah-ha’ moments or handing back a task that you helped them finally pass.


That’s what kept me going through a tough graduate year. That’s what kept me going on my lonely weekends in a new town with no friends. The kids were my absolute passion. I couldn’t even begin to think about an empty seat.

Until, just recently, I returned to school on a Monday to one lonely seat; cold and empty. One of my ‘strugglers’ was gone. He passed away. Our classroom, our community, had lost him forever.

I was shattered.

Listen: Robin Bailey emotionally reflects what it was like watching her kids deal with grief (post continues after audio…)

While I was determined to be strong for the rest of my grieving students, I just couldn’t stand the thought of that empty chair. His name on the roll. His workbook – and life – so glaringly incomplete.

Even with a university degree, two years of teaching and my own experience of grief, I still didn’t have an answer to that terrible question. There was no ‘right’ way to deal to sudden, unexpected death.

The reality was, I just had to keep going the best I could. I had to show the kids that I was sad, but strong. I had to maintain routine, without expecting too much. I had to be gentle, but still be firm. I had to talk about him, but not too much. Everyone handled their grief so differently; every day was a balancing act of emotions: theirs and mine.

And that empty seat is still there. As his teacher that kills me. I know it won’t ever be full again.

If you or a loved one is suffering, Mamamia urges you to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or BeyondBlue here.

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