My district has recently suffered a loss of an operating and permanent improvement levy of 8.9 mils. It was an uphill battle from the beginning and the cuts that resulted from this loss are deep. The greatest impact, as one might expect, is on personnel.
We had to institute a plan to eliminate nearly 100 positions from every area including our curriculum department, assistant principals in three of the four buildings, reduce the number of custodians, bus drivers, teachers, secretaries, and educational assistants. Our pay to participate fees also increased, which created a burden on families. Needless to say, it’s been a challenging month. This will inevitably impact students because we will have to fundamentally change the way we do business. Whether it’s a negative or positive impact remains to be seen.
It’s been an emotionally and physically draining process to have to reduce staff. Inevitably there is a loss of a sense of security, fear and anxiety increase, people tend to feel less valued, and the natural response is to protect oneself. Isolation increases while collaboration and a desire to do anything “extra” seem burdensome. To help navigate staff through these tough times, I realize there are five things that leaders ought to do:
1. Be Compassionate- meet people where they are emotionally and seek to understand. Acknowledge their feelings, listen, console, and be there.
2. Communicate Concretely- during times of uncertainty, the people you serve need to hear a clear and concise message. No fluffy, vague, or ambiguous talk because it only increases doubts, a lack of trust, and anxiety. This may entail making decisions that are not going to be popular, but it’s a part of communicating specific and concrete information.
3. Re-examine Your Vision- start asking reflective questions about where you want your school to go and what you want your school to become. Then collaborate with others to seek their input, suggestions, and ideas. From there, refer back to #2.
4. Think Different- Leading through loss causes you to think creatively about how to do business with less, which is not always a bad thing. Identify the constraints and challenge yourself and others to share ideas about how to do business in a different, more productive manner because you now have a “new normal.”
5. Collaborate- Create and communicate a plan of action first with small groups, reshape it, and review it some more before sharing it with a broader audience. This also entails seeking input from others before making a decision, working with others to make a decision, or relying on others to make a decision. Either way, having some level of collaboration is important and make sure there is an operational definition of collaboration before moving forward. If not, you can cause more harm than good. Refer to #2 and #3
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’m making an effort each day to apply these five ideas. Leadership takes courage and leading through tough times only increases the need for courageous actions.