School Climate & Safety Opinion

When Budgets Require the Loss of Teachers, Difficult Conversations Follow

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 12, 2018 4 min read
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As school budgets are being developed, in systems where funds are decreasing and student population as well or where priorities are shifting, excessing personnel often becomes a leader’s reality. As the plans are finalized, scenarios discussed, and best thinking shared, those affected get the news. Rest assured the grapevine and the rumor mill will have been hard at work for the weeks preceding the decision. That will happen even in districts where leaders have had the courage to enter uncomfortable conversations with the staff potentially impacted. We understand the reticence to “arm the resistance” and alarm faculty too early in the decision making process. But, too late is worse.

Considerate Coversations Matter

It is natural to want to avoid difficult conversations. But the avoidance of those conversations hurts not only those who possibly will lose their jobs, but the entire system. We lead local and pretty transparent systems. People watch us constantly. News travels. People talk. Early or late, these conversations will be uncomfortable for all involved. There will be a need for understanding. Why me, why this year, do you know how students will be hurt? These questions will come. They will be accompanied by the acceptance questions. When does my last check come? What about my benefits, my health insurance? Preparation is imperative. If this is a shock, trust the person won’t remember all you say but how you say it will make a long term difference in their lives and in their professional journey. These conversations can be an opportunity to strengthen relationships, the bedrock of school culture and build integrity, the bedrock of leadership.

Being Emotionally Present, Empathy, & Compassion Matter

Most educational leaders have been taught how to handle personnel issues. They have also been informed by their own experiences, good and bad. They most probably had a course focused on personnel issues and law in a graduate program before sitting for a certification exam. They may have the good fortune of working with other, more experienced leaders, who model ways to deal with people around tough issues. But humanity, empathy, compassion, and consideration are not skills often learned in graduate schools or internships. They come in a person’s being and either grow there or are hidden there. Can a leader bring a decision to an office conversation and simultaneously be consciously and emotionally present to the awareness that he/she is sharing news that will change the life of another human being? Not much of our work is easy but to hold ourselves, vulnerable, while delivering really bad news, is extremely hard for many. So, the words may be delivered and may even be well intended but a crushed person walks out of the room. Most of those excessed are our least senior staff. A career lies ahead of them still. If they are in this situation because they are young or new to our system, how we handle these conversation will sit with them for the rest of that career.

Leadership Matters

In a healthy school culture, a difficult conversation about the potential of a job loss would most certainly be held in private and in advance of any possible leak. But, in a culture where things are not shared, conversations are limited, and trust wavers, where difficult conversations are few, people take care to figure out where they are on the seniority list. Or, they seek out union leaders or friends in district offices or on boards to get information. Sometimes, they reach out too early or to the wrong people who care more about speculation than the system and individual well-being. We understand how hard it is to be patient in these situations. Be assured, children don’t learn well when teachers are fearful and when mistrust rises.

The World Economic Forumputs forth this set of 10 successful leadership skills:

  • Inspire action
  • Be optimistic
  • Be there
  • Communicate clearly
  • Be decisive
  • Know your organization
  • Continue your self improvement
  • Act with integrity
  • Have empathy
  • Be committed

This combination of skills are what we are suggesting for the leader in these difficult personnel conversations. Also, remember, when members of the faculty or staff are being let go, it is important to tend to the entire faculty. Loss affects everyone in different ways. The person being let go as well as those who are losing that colleague are affected. These decisions set the whole mobile of the school in motion. It isn’t a moment, it affects the story about ‘how things are done around here’. And it will be told after the person directly impacted is gone.

In all successful schools there are similar attributes: a trusting environment in which risks can be taken, an empathetic environment in which people feel understood and heard, an engaged learning environment comprised of happy adults and children. When these are strong foundations, the organization will endure and survive when tough decisions are made. Without those foundations, teachers feel ‘out of the loop’ and rumors substitute for truth, the entire organization is in peril. It is like a bruise. Minds, like blood in the body, focus on the bruise, so much so that all else becomes less important. That includes the value and quality of the attention paid to the young lives in our classrooms.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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