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Bearing Bad Tidings

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad tidings.  But for a school administrator, it’s part of the job.

One of the most difficult skills to learn is how to give people information they don’t want to hear.  Few people are “naturals” at it, and I’m not sure you’d want to be anyway.  But being able to deliver critical information in a straightforward, nonjudgmental way so that there is no mistaking the content is an essential administrative skill. 

At the beginning of my administrative career I was so bad at delivering criticism that people left my office unsure of what I was trying to say.  Some may even have thought I was telling them they were doing a pretty good job because I went out of my way to not hurt anyone’s feelings by offering my own excuses for their errors of judgment or  incompetencies.  “I know it’s tough teaching five classes back to back,” I would say sympathetically, or “Getting home late from coaching a game makes it hard to be totally prepared for your first class.” 

After a while, I realized that my “criticism” did not make any difference in employee behavior, so for the good of the students I decided I needed to change my own behavior. 

I learned that the best way to deliver the message is simply to say it flatly and factually:

 “I’ve dropped in on your class four times in the last two weeks and every time you were sitting at your desk while the students were talking with their friends.”

“The volleyball nets should be set up before the class comes in.  Students shouldn’t be sitting in the bleachers for the first 20 minutes of class time watching you set up the nets.” 

“You have developed a pattern of absences on Mondays and Fridays.  In fact, you haven’t had two full weeks of school back to back since September.  Is there something I need to know?”

“Parents expect to hear from a teacher when their child is failing the course.  You did not alert them early enough for them to intervene.”

 “It’s clear after two years that your teaching doesn’t meet the standards of the district as evidenced by your formal evaluations.  We will not be offering you a contract for next year.” 

It’s not fun, but being direct is the only way to change behavior.   And it turns out that rarely is the person surprised by what you say, only that you’re finally saying it.

The Sub

Sidelined with a twisted ankle, I email the person in charge of the conference to tell him I can’t present the following day.  “This is terrible!” he emails back.  “A hundred fifty people are expecting you!”

  “My foot is too swollen to get a shoe on,” I reply.  “So sorry.”

 “We’ll try to get a substitute,” he finally concedes.  I assume he’ll ask another presenter to repeat his or her seminar during my assigned slot.

 A week later, ankle healed, I’m at another conference for guidance counselors, school psychologists, and social workers.  While I’m setting up for my presentation, a guy in a black leather jacket wanders in.  “Hey,” he says.  “Are you the person who talks about working with difficult parents?”

 “I am,” I say.

 “I’m the guy who covered for you last week,” he says. He hands me his card.  His name is Paul Failla.  His card says he’s a motivational speaker for students on character development, violence reduction, civic responsibility, and driver safety awareness.

 “Huh,” I say. “What did you talk about?”

 He looks surprised.  “I talked about working with difficult parents, “ he says.

 “Oh,” I say.  “I didn’t see that on your card.”

 “Look, “ he says, “ I’m a retired Jersey cop.  I know from difficult parents.  Here’s what I did.  First I asked people to tell their own personal stories about tough situations they’ve had to deal with.  We commiserated, had a few laughs, and maybe I was able to give them a few insights.”

 “Huh,” I say again.

 “And you know what?” he says, “I could not believe some of those stories.  How parents act.  One counselor told about a kid who called the cops on her parents because they grounded her for something stupid she did.  She called the cops!  Can you imagine that?”

 “Yes, “ I say. 

 “I told the audience that things were a lot different when I was a kid.  Imagine!  Calling the cops on your own parents.  So you know what I did?  I said, ‘I’m gonna call my 83-year-old mother right now in New Jersey and we can ask her what she would have done if I had called the cops on her when she disciplined me.’ ”

 He pulls out his phone to show me.  “So I open it up and call her and it rings and she says hello and I say, Ma, I’m talking to 150 guidance counselors.  Say hello, Ma.’ And I hold the phone out and she says hello.  And I tell the audience, ‘Say hello.  Her name is Rose.’ And the counselors say, ‘Hello, Rose.’”

 ‘So I ask her, ‘Ma, what would you have done if I had called the cops on you when you and Dad disciplined me?’”  He pauses.

  “So what did she say?” I ask.

 “Well, she starts out, ‘Those were very different times.’  Then she talks about how it was when we were growing up.  How parents were parents.  They loved it, “ he adds.

 I’m maybe annoyed with his chutzpah but pretty impressed with his ingenuity.  He didn’t give them any specific strategies to deal with difficult parents.  But the counselors probably came away from his session feeling a little better than they did when they went in. 

 “Yeah, it was cathartic,” he says.

 “Huh, “ I say.  I’m not going to tell him, but I’m hoping I can do as well.





Teaching and Coaching


More than one young teacher has told me he (or she) went into teaching because he loved to coach.  “Teaching and coaching are a lot alike,” one young man told me eagerly.  He had been a soccer player at college and was eager to coach high school soccer. He was also certified in math.

 I needed a math teacher and I needed a coach.  And it was a struggle not to let him coach the first year. 

 Teaching and coaching ARE a lot alike.  But there is one big difference:  Students choose to come out for the team and they all want to be there.  They’ll work hard to earn playing time, and that means pleasing the coach.  Math, on the other hand ….

 We sometimes forget that the main job of new teachers is to learn how to teach.  They just spent four years of college studying teaching, but daily application is a different story entirely.  They need to figure out classroom management and curriculum, as well as school protocols and policies.  They need to learn to keep good records, handle paperwork, use data appropriately, plan for state tests, meet with parents, serve on student study teams, implement IEPs, prepare daily plans, submit grades, manage discipline, and maybe even keep a website.  Student teaching, no matter how useful an experience it was, didn’t prepare them for all of this, and every day is a new learning experience.

 We hired them as teachers.  If we give them a little time to hone those classroom skills (and a lot of support), they just might become a double threat:  great teacher, great coach.







Sizzle and Steak

Twenty years ago guidance counselor Lou Brunelli had a great idea:  a moveable conference.  It would be offered in five major cities over the course of a week and with the help of a federal grant (College Access Challenge Grant) registration would be free for guidance counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, or anyone else who works with kids.  The responsibilities for setting it up in each city would be shared by local people, but the basic plan would remain the same.  One main program would be printed, and each city would have a section of the program to describe the specifics of that location:  directions, parking, room assignments, etc.  Counselors could get the latest information from college representatives, state education spokespeople, and other presenters at no cost to their districts. 

 It was a great idea 20 years ago and it’s still a great idea today.

The Guidance Expo is an example of what a group of creative, committed educators can accomplish for the profession and for the good of kids.  Counselors and other professionals throughout the state have access to information about college financial aid, grief counseling, gangs, life skills, licensure, character education, working with minors, sexual abuse, and emergency crisis teams.  In addition, counselors had the opportunity to learn from one another, share tales from the trenches, and laugh a little.  All at no cost to the district, not only because there is no registration fee, but also because substitutes are not called in when these professionals are absent from school.

 Guidance counselors make a great audience for presenters.  Whether by nature or profession, as a group they empathize with the speaker, they get the jokes, and they listen.  With so many initiatives in education that appear briefly with a lot of fanfare and then disappear, this moveable conference endures.  Something rare:  both sizzle and steak.  See www.guidanceexpos.net.




Bueller? Bueller?

When Congress enacted the Gun Free School Act in 1994, they probably didn’t have Zachary Christie in mind.  Zachary, you may remember, is a 6-year-old who was suspended for 5 days after he brought a Cub Scout camping utensil, a combination knife, fork and spoon, to school in Delaware.  Before being allowed to return to his regular first grade classroom, Zachary was also supposed to serve 45 days in an alternative school.

It’s the kind of administrative decision that makes us all look bad.  It reinforces the stereotype of the clueless, inflexible, humorless principals and teachers so aptly portrayed in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, or even “The Simpsons.” 

The media have a field day with decisions like this. 

Of course, the “school officials” didn’t make the policy.  That responsibility belonged to the school board.  But you have to wonder if no one in the office said, “Suspend a first grader? For what?  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s think about this.  Let’s talk to the superintendent.  Let’s call the board president.”  Certainly someone suspected that Zachary’s parents weren’t going to say, “Wise decision.  Do we need to transport our son to the alternative school?”

Of course, it’s only fair to point out that when the district’s zero tolerance policy was adopted, people thought it was a great idea.  These are likely the same people who now think that school officials lack both reasonableness and compassion for little kids. 

After a public outcry, the school board “revised” its zero tolerance policy, reducing suspensions for kindergartners and first graders to 3-5 days according to USA Today.  It’s still going to be a judgment call for school administrators -- one that requires a common sense and a little courage.  Do it for the profession.












Parent Conference Eve

Students have been in school a couple of months now, and it’s time for parents and teachers to meet face to face and talk about each child’s progress. 

As we prepare for conferences, we should remember that little courtesies count.  Classrooms and halls should be clean or at least straightened up before parents arrive even if it means adjusting the custodians’ schedules.  Pails, mops, and wastebaskets shouldn’t present an obstacle course to visitors.  If coffee and tea can be made available, great.  If not, then teachers shouldn’t be drinking coffee or soft drinks or anything else while they're meeting with parents. It's like having guests in your home.

Principals who talk with teachers beforehand about conferences signal that these meetings are not just another fall ritual like football and Halloween parties. We can’t assume that all teachers know or adhere to best practices for parent meetings unless we actually discuss expectations. For example:

*Teachers should greet parents at the door with a handshake.

*Parents and teachers should sit at a table or at student desks.  Teachers should not be behind their desks with the parents sitting in front like students.

*Teachers can set a collegial tone right from the beginning by inviting parents to speak first about any concerns or questions they might have.

*Parents want to be assured that the teacher knows and likes their child.  Teachers need to have specific information or anecdotes about each child’s academic and social progress.

 *Defensive parents can turn into unsupportive parents, so it’s important for teachers to think about how they want to share information about behavioral issues or learning difficulties.

 Of course, teachers will appreciate the principal’s being visible in the halls and available for potentially difficult meetings.  

It’s sometimes helpful to say to teachers, “If you were meeting with your child’s teacher, what would you want to know?  How would you want to be treated?”  It’s easy to forget that the reason for these conferences is to allow both sides to share information and to work together to benefit the child.  A little courtesy increases the chances that these goals will actually be reached.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.