Principals have always had the unpleasant task of sharing bad news and unwelcome mandates —especially those dealing with policies and rules they had no part in creating but that affect their staff and school communities.
That role has been magnified in the last two years, propelled by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the politicization of safety protocols including mask requirements, social distancing, and quarantines. Added to that, principals may have to deliver traumatic word about student and staff deaths.
Managing those difficult conversations—making sure the message gets across, while ensuring recipients feel respected and heard—is a delicate, high-wire act that requires preparation and flexibility.
“I absolutely cannot stand to give bad news, but at the same time, I accept ... that is part of the job I have to do,” said Aaron Eyler, the principal of Matawan Regional High School in Aberdeen, N.J. “And it’s part of what it takes to keep people safe and to make sure that a highly effective school is being run.”
Here’s some advice from four principals on what has helped them deliver unwelcome news to students, staff, and families over the last few years.
Plan ahead for difficult conversations
It’s OK to write a script of the message you want to get across.
But principals should also leave room to individualize their messages. For example, if a principal is delivering news about a shift from in-person learning to remote or hybrid options, it’s important to remember that a single-parent household would have different considerations and concerns from a two-person household where both parents work, Eyler said. So, too, would a parent with a child in a self-contained special education class and the parent of a student who is in honors or AP-level classes.
Principals must be aware of such nuances when they’re preparing.
“There are different needs, just as there are different reasons why students have individualized education plans,” Eyler said.
Eyler calls the scripting the transactional part of the conversation, for which he prepares notes.
“It’s essential reading, ‘This is the situation where we’re at; this is the impact it’s going to have on your child.’ Basically, just the facts, ma’am, so to speak,” he said. “But after those two minutes are out of the way, I would never advise somebody to take notes because the second part of the conversation should be very student- and family-specific.”
Derrick Lawson, the principal of Indio High School in Indio, Calif., has created templates for different situations, from responding to school shootings, sharing news about a death in the school community, to switching from in-person schooling to remote or hybrid options.
Lawson has suggestions about preparing for these discussions.
“Take a moment, collect yourself, and jot down what it is that you want to communicate, because there is no one who is perfect at this and you are not born with this skill set of communicating this kind of stuff,” he said. “I would say keep it very simple … because people are not going to remember lots and lots of things.”
His communication skills were put to the test when one of the high school’s seniors died in the early days of the pandemic. Lawson had the unenviable job of breaking the news to staff and students.
The student had recorded a message from his hospital bed while he waited for a bone marrow transplant, showing that he was keeping up with his studies remotely and reassuring students that if he could do so from a hospital bed, so could others.
After the student’s death, Lawson thought about what he wanted to say to the school community. He led with the facts of the student’s death, but he ended with the student’s love for school and his dream to be the first in his family to graduate.
“Those were my three points: just honor his memory, finish, and honor your family the way he was trying to honor his. That helps people pull away from the focus of the deep sorrow and gives them a sense of hope and honoring him.”
Be direct, but empathetic
Difficult conversations can trigger emotional responses, so it’s crucial that principals take an empathetic approach. While principals have to be direct, concrete, honest, and concise with information, they also can’t be robotic.
“When you are telling someone, ‘I am sorry, but your child must quarantine for five days, 10 days, 14 days—whatever the guidance is—that’s something that, as a parent, they are going to get incredibly emotional about,” Eyler said.
In such a situation, principals can explain that the district is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or state guidelines and that officials understand that it’s difficult for the recipient of the information.
“It’s never an easy conversation, but at least both parties come away from the table knowing that they were honest and that they were making a decision that was in the best interest of the child, and it’s not something that anybody wants to do,” said Eyler.
Lawson tells his staff and other school leaders to “imagine that you are the person receiving the news and how would you feel in their situation as to the time, place, and manner of delivery.”
Principals shouldn’t come across as unfeeling, Lawson said.
“It has to be humanizing, interpersonal,” he said. “Remember this is not information processing; it’s human communication.”
Don’t take it personally
You may get pushback in executing on an unpopular policy; you may get vehement disagreement. The key to dealing with that? Don’t take it to heart, and keep your personal views to yourself.
“In order to enforce whatever the law or the executive order is, I need to also accept that people are going to get upset and want to tell me what their point of view is,” said Eyler. His goal is to listen, accept they may have a different point of view and are being heard, and let them know the action is being taken to ensure student safety.
Meghan Redmond, the principal of Homer Middle School in Homer, Alaska, has had difficult conversations with her community about switching from voluntary masking to mandatory in-school masking when COVID-19 cases and other metrics pushed the district to change course.
“You have to remember that you weren’t the one necessarily making that decision,” Redmond said. “You’re just the one who has to communicate it. ... I always share with people that my priority is having kids in the building doing in-person learning, because we know that’s what’s best for our students. I always try to bring the focus back on that.”
Amy L. Dixon, the principal/director of instruction at Jefferson & Lincoln Attendance Centers in Carmi-White County Schools in Carmi, Ill., agreed.
“As a building leader the most important thing to do is to stay calm,” Dixon said. “No matter how we feel inside or no matter how unsure the times may feel, we just have to be really calm.”
Clarity and transparency are key, especially amid the pandemic where rules and policies are made by multiple agencies and can change quickly.
“If it’s a decision that is not subject to my decisionmaking ... one that I have to abide by, I can tell parents that,” said Lawson, the Indio principal. “[If] I am canceling this particular event or changing this event to a virtual one for this reason, I give my reasons why. But if it’s one where the district or the state or CDC has made a decision, it’s not passing the buck so to speak” to say so.
Last year, for example, before the omicron variant started spreading, CDC guidance allowed schools to hold theater performances indoors, with some social distancing rules and families seated together.
But Lawson made his school’s policy more restrictive, limiting the number of people who could attend the performances and requiring them to sit farther apart than the CDC guidance, reducing the theater capacity to about 70 percent.
But he made sure to tell the community why: Many of the students were not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines at the time, and a large percentage of his students live in three-generation households, with elderly relatives. Only one person sent a message dissenting, he said.
Lawson also adds a date and time stamp in his written communication to parents, staff, and students, letting them know it reflects the latest information he has.
“There are some key phrases that you need to use, such as, ‘We realize that change can be very unsettling. We are committed to our students as the top priority,’ and then share your information,” he said. “You’ve got to reiterate what is your intention.”
Explain the ‘why’
Another tricky messaging task: reminding staff why it’s important to get back to long-term initiatives and routines that have been put on the back burner during the pandemic.
Dixon, for example, is leading her school in math curriculum review this year—something the district had planned before the pandemic.
Dixon’s task was to remind math teachers why the overhaul was necessary, but she also let them know that she would help them. The district is also giving math teachers time off from teaching to work on the curriculum.
“There comes a point where you have to continue to move forward,” Dixon said. “Am I going to tell you that every math teacher in the district is excited that we are doing this right now? Absolutely not. But ... we are just trying to control the things that we can control.”
Dixon also has tried to put a positive spin on discussions around the return of staff evaluations.
It’s about “reminding them the impact that they do have,” she said. “There’s been some amazing success stories throughout the pandemic, so it’s also an opportunity to document some of the great things they’ve done during this time. Let’s capture that.”
Build strong relationships
If principals build strong and trusting relationships with their staff members, students, and communities, it will be a lot easier to discuss thorny, unpleasant, and difficult issues.
Some of that trust can be forged through listening to staff, following up when they have concerns, and ensuring that they have the resources to do their jobs.
“It’s definitely not just the situation, it’s something that’s built on a lot more,” said Redmond, the principal from Homer, Alaska.
Redmond spent her first few months at Homer Middle School last year getting to know teachers and students, finding out what was important to them, and learning how the staff operates.
“That has really helped me to anticipate how they are going to react to something I am about to share, so I don’t get quite knocked off my feet as I did in the beginning of the year,” Redmond said.
Like most of the country, Homer Middle School is dealing with a substitute teacher shortage, but Redmond is able to cover classes with teachers and staff in the building.
She credits the school climate built on the idea that everyone in the building is a part of every student’s education for making this possible, she said.
“That’s how we operate, so being able to cover for each other is a part of building that climate,” she said. “If you don’t have a good relationship, having to share those negative things is going to make it even harder for you.”
Let people feel heard
Principals have to be willing to listen now more than ever, Dixon said.
Principals are master multitaskers, but this is one of those times when they should train 100 percent of their energy on the recipient. No emailing or texting while having conversations, Dixon said.
“People will give you tons of feedback right now, and a lot of it maybe isn’t positive, but I think you just have to be prepared to know that that’s coming,” she said.
And whenever possible, opt for in-person communication with staff over e-mail, even if it’s a short staff meeting, advised Redmond.
Doing so gives the staff opportunities to ask questions and brainstorm solutions to possible problems that may come up along the way.
“Usually, the staff thinks about so many more things than I ever think of and helps me figure out what problems can arise,” Redmond said.
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as From Principals, a Primer on Delivering Bad News