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School & District Management Opinion

When Life Interferes

By Jamie Sussel Turner — April 08, 2008 5 min read
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Early one morning, a teacher peers around my office door, steps softly inside, and asks, “Do you mind if I close the door?” I know that a powerful conversation will follow. This happens more than most people would imagine. As the principal of a school with 460 students in pre-K through grade 3, I’ve come to expect that life outside the school day is bound to interfere with life inside the school building.

A family member’s death, a teacher’s illness, a son’s deployment, a divorce, a new mom, and the list goes on …

After 10 years in this role, life issues among the adults in our school continue to be one of the most challenging parts of my job, yet the part for which I was least prepared.

And nearly everyone has life issues—even me.

Seven years ago, I was treated for breast cancer. I missed two weeks of school for the lumpectomy and scheduled six months of chemotherapy for late on Fridays, so that I could be back the following Monday. Daily radiation treatments followed for six weeks after that, requiring me to leave school by 4 o’clock each afternoon—what a novelty! I didn’t slow down, miss meetings, or admit that I wasn’t well. This helped me feel some measure of control over my health. “Hey, I’m not sick” was what my actions said to me. Looking back, I wish someone had encouraged me to take more time off, though I probably wouldn’t have listened if they had.

What’s my role as principal when an employee faces a rough patch?

Not everyone handles life issues the way I did. While my natural instincts sent me into overdrive, I’ve found that others find it challenging to function fully at work. I’m not saying one way is better than the other, and I refrain from judging those who react differently from me. We are all different in how we deal with difficult matters.

But the question I keep pondering is this: What’s my role as principal when an employee faces a rough patch? Boundaries blur when tragedy strikes. I feel like the fulcrum of a seesaw trying to stay balanced. My heart, focused on the needs of the employee, is perched on one end; my head, focused on the needs of the students, is perched on the other. It’s never easy to balance the mother in me who wants to emotionally embrace a troubled staff member with the principal in me who knows that the needs of children can’t be put on hold. To the 20 or so students in a teacher’s care, this is their only chance at 2nd grade.

It’s never easy. The best approach I’ve found is that setting clear expectations, building needed support, and helping the staff member consider all options are central to managing traumatic times.

I try to set clear expectations about the nonnegotiable elements of classroom life: Lesson plans, student learning, class management, and parental contact are necessary parts of the job that must still happen. Clear expectations can help teachers make important choices about when to return to work and where to devote their limited time and energy.

I’ve also learned that our staff is amazing at reaching out to support one another, a wonderful gift to me, since I can’t possibly do it alone. Time and time again, I have witnessed teachers pick up a colleague’s slack with jobs such as writing lesson plans, and especially by freely giving their unending emotional support and friendship. I try to recognize this and thank them for the role they have played in supporting their teammate or friend. Over the years, I’ve come to value this support enormously.

Emotional support is part of my job, too. A new bit of learning for me is that I can play a vital role by talking with staff members as they are assessing their options about the length of a leave or on-the-job stresses. I didn’t always see this as part of my role. My experience has changed me in how I value life outside of school and, especially, by developing a higher level of self-care.

With this new insight, I am now more likely to gently nudge a staff member to consider if more time off will be helpful, or if she is doing too much. “You need to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of your mother,” I try to say when I recognize an employee is on overdrive. Some folks cover up emotions and struggles, making it difficult to identify that support is even needed. I know this all too well and try to tease out when it’s happening. For me, it was a hard lesson to realize that the school ran pretty well in my absence. I try to help teachers learn that their classrooms can, too.

Practical support also makes an important contribution. This could take the form of covering a teacher’s classroom while she leaves early for an emotional doctor’s appointment, or sharing my office for a private phone conversation. I might also spend more time in a particular classroom to assist with class management that’s taken a steep slide because of a teacher’s absence or less than peak performance. By keeping teaching assignments the same for teachers returning from a leave, the school can ensure that they don’t have the added workload of planning to teach new curricula. And providing a solid overlap period for the replacement and the returning (or departing) teacher leads to a smooth transition for teachers, students, and parents.

I wonder a lot about what we all can do to support educators faced with human issues.

Dealing with parental complaints is a huge challenge. Parents often have limited tolerance or empathy when it comes to ensuring that the needs of their children are being met. Many show great compassion on one level, but, on another, feel that anything short of the ideal experience for their child is unacceptable. It’s difficult for me to help parents empathize with a situation when I can’t ethically divulge the personal circumstances of the staff member. Even if I could, it wouldn’t matter to some parents when they feel their child isn’t receiving the optimal level of schooling. As the mother of two sons, I get this. Putting into place the practical and emotional strategies described above can help minimize these reactions.

I wonder a lot about what we all can do to support educators faced with the human issues that blindside most of us at one time or another. I have one principal friend who actually retired when faced with illness, because there was no backup available. Her community lost a gifted leader as a result. In an era with a shortage of talented principals, this is especially sad. The articles I read linking teacher and administrator compensation to test scores and No Child Left Behind Act gains raise even more questions. What if it’s just not someone’s year?

After a decade of living and breathing the life of a principal, I look back and recall the topics on my mind in the months leading up to the start of this exciting new role: student learning, team building, professional development, curriculum renewal, parental involvement. Not once did I anticipate how the everyday life of the adults who inhabit our school might interfere with these lofty goals. Not once in graduate school did the topic come up. Not once in my reading did I encounter this theme.

No wonder I felt unprepared when life inevitably did interfere.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as When Life Interferes

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