Administrator certification classes rarely prepare prospective administrators for when the panic button is pushed. This is a story about when tragedy or controversy occurs at a school—not if—and mistakes leaders can avoid.
After ten years serving as a high school principal, I thought I had seen it all. Yet, in the span of one week, I endured two high profile personnel matters that would rock our school community and make national news.
Allegations involving two staff members caused disease, discomfort, and unrest amongst all of the teachers. Although only two teachers were directly impacted, other teachers did not feel safe; the entire school body was suffering. Much like when an ear infection causes disequilibrium or cold hands cause our teeth to chatter, the interconnectedness of our social group was feeling the effects. Our staff was in need of emotional first aid.
As a school principal, charged with serving both students and adults, part of the challenge was to maintain employee confidentiality, while communicating what transpired and assuring staff and students they were supported.
My initial communication to staff was an email. The hope was by equipping staff with knowledge, it would expel fear. The email alerted staff that a parent communication was being sent to notify parents of an incident. However, because it was an employee matter, the message was vague and somewhat cryptic, which led to further questions and fed uncertainty. Ultimately, lacking specific details, the teachers’ uneasiness grew, exacerbated and compounded by the local media and social media.
Mistake 1: Email in lieu of Face-To-Face Interaction
The email was distant, detracted, and detached. It lacked connection to the group. The staff was feeling vulnerable and, as the leader, my actions did not convey I would do what was necessary to protect the group and to make them feel safe. Teachers needed to know, if they made a mistake or if they allegedly did wrong, I would be there for them, not to cover up mistakes, but to make sure consequences were just and fair. What was needed was time and energy, the currency of trust. They needed to hear my words, not to read them, because words ask us to pay special attention to tone and motive. Meaning is communicated through tone. Words create an energy that helps to define a message. Tone lays the foundation for how people relate to the message; they can create bonds, indifference, or worse, wedges. Words create an energy around them, an experience that will define relationships. Email does not command the same power of face-to-face interaction.
My next attempt was to hold an all staff meeting to discuss the process used to investigate allegations against staff members and to identify other district level support beyond my office. I invited the Teacher Union leadership and the Superintendent. Human Resources also attended. At the meeting, I described generally how school administration responds to an allegation involving a teacher and explained due process (almost verbatim of what I had learned in a professional development day for administrators that was facilitated by our Board of Education Attorney). The Superintendent addressed the staff. Then I introduced the President of the Teachers Union who made some brief remarks. He then asked administrators to leave the room so he could address the collective bargaining unit in private. I later would learn that emotions of staff members during the union portion of the meeting would reach dramatic levels uncharacteristic of our team. The meeting was the antithesis of what I had hoped.
Mistake 2: Inviting Unfamiliar People to a Family Discussion
Group cohesion is built over time. Trust is earned and lost over a series of social interactions. By inviting “outsiders” into the group, the dynamic shifted. Instead of cooperation and collaboration amongst staff, the net result was combativeness. Although well intended, inviting the union and the superintendent was a mistake. They were not part of our family, the collective group, and although they were great people, the staff did not feel comfortable discussing “family matters” with people they did not consider part of the family.
A couple days later, I prepared for a Professional Development Day. Sitting on my couch the night before, as I finalized a PowerPoint, I texted my friend and colleague Peter DeWitt the following, “I don’t know whether to train them or hug them.” We exchanged a couple more texts, and I finalized my plans. The next day, facing nearly a hundred staff members, PowerPoint ready, the meeting began with, “Good Morning!” They replied in chorus and in-kind with the salutation. I then asked “How are you?” Some people said, “Good.” I said, “No, really, how are you?” It became quiet. I did not fill the space. The silence was deafening and awkward. We sat in the space, we sat in the tension, and then I led with my heart. It started with an apology. I told them I was sorry and that I regretted leaving the previous staff meeting not having the opportunity to answer their questions. I shared my thoughts from the previous evening, “I don’t know whether to train you or hug you.” Some teachers began to cry. And then, one teacher replied, “Hug us for 7 hours?” The place erupted with laughter, his comment broke the ice.
After composing ourselves, I told the following story:
The state had been visiting earlier in the week because we had made the “naughty list” for poor student attendance. While in the meeting, I heard a student’s voice raise to an octave well beyond the norm. He then punctuated with an f-bomb! I left the conference room, located the student, and quickly escorted him to a private space. While escorting the student, he said to the target of his outburst, a female, “I F-ing love you!” Behind closed doors, the student melted, awash with tears. We sat for a moment. He disclosed he was homeless and that he had just broken up with a girl he had been dating for a year, but she was the girl he would marry. My colleague and I then prodded, “Why would you break up with her?” He replied, tears running down his face, “I have so much going on in my own life; I have to fix me.” At 17, he realized, he had nothing left to give. That to take care of others, you must first care for yourself.
As an educational consultant and one that travels often, the student’s words reminded me of the flight attendants script read to travelers upon every departure.
“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will be deployed. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.”
The flight attendants know that a caregiver’s first instinct is to attend to their children, whether a parent or teacher. However, they also know that for one to give, to serve, they must care for themselves. The teachers in my school needed to know it was okay to think of themselves, to internalize their feelings about their troubled colleagues, to think, to feel, to hurt, to be human.
Permission was needed for the caregivers of students, my teachers, to care for themselves. It was not only okay, but necessary. So, instead of training the teachers, we affixed the oxygen mask to our mouths, took a collective breath, and then literally and figuratively hugged.
- Teachers needed leadership in its purest form. They needed someone to make them feel safe. Assurances had to come from someone within the group, not from an outsider.
- Teachers needed to know that the leader would sacrifice his own comfort for the betterment of the group.
- Teachers needed to be heard. A space to listen. Don’t be afraid to sit in the tension, when those you serve, need you most.
- Teachers didn’t need all the technical answers. They just needed to be certain, assured, that they were safe. When tragedy or crisis occurs, you might not be ready, you might need more time, but there will still be a need for your leadership. Accept that you will never be 100% prepared for everything you encounter, accept the tension that accompanies the uncertainty, and move forward in the best way you know how to serve those you lead.
- Know that leadership is not about position, it is a choice. A choice to sacrifice one’s self-interest for the people you serve.