“Reflections on School Crisis”

I once told my wife that as a head of school, my position should be retitled, “professional problem solver.” The reality is, much of what we do in our role as the head of the school is about solving problems or developing solutions for various challenges. Some of these are fairly minor and actually fun. When I came to my current position in Myanmar, I found myself on edge the first couple of months. I finally had to stop and reflect on what was causing this sensation. I realized while at my previous position in Venezuela, I had become used to being in constant crisis mode, moving seamlessly from one crisis to another, and sometimes juggling many at the same time. I was carrying this anticipation for the next crisis with me into my new position. Yet, my new position was not in crisis. Instead, I was finding myself dealing with what I call “school challenges,” those puzzles and problems we expect to be confronted with when we become school leaders. These challenges are the ones that are actually fun, and I find myself truly enjoying being engaged in them as we strive to improve the educational experience of our students.

Every school has its share of challenges though, some of which constitute a form of crisis. My first headship was in the Cayman Islands, where we experienced a direct hit from a category 5 hurricane. The majority of the island suffered destruction, and we were no different. We spent three months recovering before the school reopened. This recovery was taking place while many teachers were without homes, there was a shortage of food and fuel, and the fact the island had no resources beyond tourism and finance meant all supplies had to be replaced through shipments from other places. This particular crisis was one where I learned the importance of planning and re-planning, and being flexible enough to adapt those plans as the situation evolved.

In many ways, I felt the hurricane in the Cayman Islands tested me as a school leader, and helped prepare me for later school crisis situations. I built on this experience as other school crisis situations occurred. I felt fortunate to have had this preparation, as I would eventually need it during my time in Venezuela.

Of the four years I was in Venezuela, I would describe three of them as a period of constant crisis. During this period we were confronted with a deteriorating political environment evolving into massive nationwide demonstrations that went on for months, the center of which was just down the road from the school. We saw a currency crisis resulting from hyperinflation, and labor issues that divided the school. We also found ourselves in the middle of an international sex abuse case in which many victims were still attending our school, with a related court case that followed. Finally, we found ourselves challenged by an environment where safety and security were a constant concern. We had three teachers held up at gunpoint on the road in front of the school, our school attorney was murdered in his home during a robbery, and several students had parents kidnapped and held for ransom. All of this would continue to test me as a leader of a school in crisis.

When you are dealing with a crisis, you do the best job you can in the moment. It is previous experiences that develop instinct in these situations. As a result, the practice of reflection is important to learn and continue to grow, emerging stronger in preparation for the next crisis. My reflections on my time in Venezuela have been an important process for me, and have provided some important lessons learned.

  1. Focus on the big picture and the end goal – a crisis situation can have the consequence of tying us up with minor details. I find it is important to identify what the end goal is, and then make a plan for getting there. During the political demonstrations in Venezuela, we identified the end goal as being uninterrupted learning for students. Once this was clarified, it became possible to determine options for this to occur.
  2. Do your homework and know your options – during a crisis, it often seems we are pinned in, and sometimes other people try to make us believe this is true. I always find it is necessary to step back, brainstorm with others, and realize there is more then one way to approach a crisis. There is a sense of taking control of the situation when you know there are options and you have made the choice of which one to follow.
  3. Appear strong and knowledgeable - In a crisis, a community looks to the school head for strength and leadership. We need to provide that, whether we feel it or not. When dealing with the sex abuse case that hit our school, one of our advisors told me, “These people have been visited by a monster. They want to be angry at that monster, but that monster is no longer here. You will need to be the monster for them.” What he was saying to me was I needed to be strong for our community. I needed to shoulder the responsibility to get us through, and I needed to accept there would be anger and sadness directed toward me as the head of school, even if I had nothing to do with what happened. That strength was important to guiding us through a very difficult time.
  4. Don’t be afraid to throw money at problems – As school leaders, we often think we need to have all of the answers. In a crisis situation we need to be honest, and bring in the experts when needed. When dealing with labor issues in Venezuela, we found ourselves constantly on the defensive, always in reaction mode. Finally, we acknowledged we needed help. We hired a good legal team and a communications firm. With the guidance these people provided, we were able to begin to turn things around and start negotiating a solution to the problem.
  5. Presume positive intentions – I’ve had the good fortune to do some work with Bob Garmston from Adaptive Schools. One of the Seven Norms of Collaboration he writes about is to presume positive intentions. I’ve found this to be an incredibly powerful ideal when working through challenging situations. While working through the labor issues we had in Venezuela I found it more manageable when I reminded myself everyone involved was engaged in doing what he or she believed was best. This helped me to depersonalize the situation and be more objective in my approach.
  6. Be transparent whenever possible – Early on during the sex abuse case, we were working closely with the FBI. During this period, there were clearly things we couldn’t share, as it was an ongoing investigation. However, as soon as it was possible, we put information out. We found people to be very appreciative of this. Similarly, during the political demonstrations, we put out a daily update with any information we had and the plans for educating students the next day. This built trust and it removed opportunity for rumor. In the absence of information people will create their own information. Transparency, within what is possible, helps to avoid this.
  7. Protect your principals / division heads – During a crisis situation, learning must continue. It is important to protect principals and division heads. This means providing them with information so they know what is going on, but also protecting them so they do not become embroiled in dealing with the situation and can focus on being educational leaders instead. This was particularly important when we were dealing with labor issues. There was a desire on the part of some people to get others to take sides. Protecting principals from being in this position permitted them to continue to focus on students and learning.
  8. Maintain a healthy head / board chair relationship – I’ve been very luck to have always had great board chairs and presidents. I find it is incredibly important to always keep them informed so there are no surprises. They can then become important advisors in dealing with the situation and supporting the school. In each situation I’ve described in Venezuela, I was able to work with the board president in partnership. As a result, I always knew my decisions were supported and would not suddenly be overturned.
  9. Take care of yourself – After a tough day of dealing with a crisis situation I find it incredibly tempting to pour a drink and flop down in front of the television. While I think doing this is ok on occasion, it can’t be the norm. During a crisis I find I need to concentrate on also being there for my family, and maintaining my exercise routine. This helps me to feel more fulfilled and on top of my game, which gives me confidence in dealing with these difficult situations.
  10. Finally, remember it is about the kids – when I remind myself why I am here and why I do the work I do, everything becomes more purposeful and meaningful. When dealing with a tough situation, I often take a break and visit a preschool class, observe students on the playground, or chat to kids working on a project. It reminds me who we do this for, and why our work is important.

As a head of school, I feel I’m one of the luckiest people alive. I love my job, and I love going to work each day. There is purpose to the work we do. In that sense, we are very fortunate. Unfortunately, sometimes, crisis situations are a part of the job. They are difficult, but they do make us stronger. It is this strength that helps us be effective leaders and permits the focus to stay on learning.

Greg can be reached at director@isyedu.org.

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