I am writing this as an open letter to my colleagues as superintendents and to the Boards of Education they serve. This is hiring and firing season – actually, in reverse order. This is the time of year where evaluations and finances lead to uncomfortable recommendations to end a person’s or persons’ employment within the district.
These are incredibly challenging times. They are easily the most difficult Board meetings of the year and at no time is a Board’s trust in their superintendent and administration more tested. This is difficult to talk about and a relationship strain for many Board/administrator relationships. So, I decided to take an attempt at addressing the issue in the form of ‘Tips for the Season’ with the hope that it helps to create the sometimes necessary dialogue within a district. The 10 Tips are designed to flow in a relatively chronological manner, but we all know that these processes never seem to flow as smoothly as planned.
TIP 1) Firing is not a sustained strategy for school improvement.
- Termination of employees has a profound cultural impact. This is sometimes negative, sometimes positive, and often has pockets of both. What is definitive is that any administrator or administration known as a hatchet-man is not going to build a positive culture. Firing people for the sake of firing people is simply not a strategy for success.
TIP 2) Keeping below average employees is not a sustained strategy for school improvement.
- When we have employees that are not very good or are not on their way to being very good we have hard decisions to make. So, while we do not want to use termination as a strategy, we also do not want to use comprehensive retention as a strategy either. The point is – be strategic and make the hard decisions when they need to be made.
TIP 3) Evaluate your feelings about your administrators
- Are your principals of high character? Do they make decisions based off of sound rationale? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then move down the list. If the answer to either of these questions is no. Then stop what you are doing and analyze why you are still employing that person. Simply, if you cannot trust someone in authority’s recommendations, why do you have them in a position of authority?
TIP 4) Practice empathy.
- If your principal is of sound mind as discussed in #3, understand that it takes an insane amount of time, effort, energy, and courage to bring forward a recommendation to end someone’s employment. If you have not noticed, we in schools are not the most aggressive of folk. Making the decision to end someone’s employment within an organization is truly difficult and guarantee you the leadership in your district did not make the recommendation without hours upon hours of stress and strife.
TIP 5) Board’s need to leverage THEIR employee.
- Boards of Education hire a chief executive. The rest of the staff hired within the district is theirs to manage. Recommendations coming forward to the Board need to be scrutinized by their singular employee. If the superintendent affirms the recommendation and confirms that policies and protocols set in place were followed, the Board must consider the recommendation.
TIP 6) Brace yourself.
- I have been through this scenario many times as a colleague to teachers going through the process, as an administrator making the recommendation, a superintendent supporting it, and even as a Board member charged with carrying it forward. It is tough. You will receive phone calls, emails, and tearful recounts of the impact the employee has made on someone’s child. The union will do what they can and should do to protect their member. It will be difficult.
TIP 7) Remember, people are watching.
- In the midst of the turmoil, it will feel as though the entire community wants you to cast a vote in a certain direction. That is probably true. The issue is that the noise you hear represents the viewpoint of the ‘unsilent minority.’ Meanwhile, the rest of your administrative team, faculty, and community are watching to see what you are going to do. The silent majority deserves as much consideration as the five letters of support and thirty-five minutes of public comment that you are going to hear. This is where Boards and superintendents can react to public pressure. It is important to remember that the ‘force’ of the pressure is not indicative of what percentage of people agree or disagree with a decision.
TIP 8) Either decision you make, you are (effectively) ending someone’s employment in your district
- When faced with acting on the recommendation of your administration understand that you are either acting to end the employee in question’s career in the district or acting to end the administrator’s career in your district. I am currently coaching two principals that are headed back to the classroom because of situations where their recommendations were not supports. So, whether or not the principal or superintendent resigns (which is a real possibly) is not the point. By not supporting a personnel recommendation you have all but sealed their fate as a leader in your district.
TIP 9) Culture is built in every decision.
- A Board that chooses to not support a well-intentioned, moral, and protocol following administrator’s recommendations for employment has decided that the culture in the district is to preserve the status quo. You are sending the message that it is harder to make change than deal with average results; it is okay to do a below average job as long as by being employed you cause no issues. This is not a healthy place to work, nor is it a healthy place for students.
TIP 10) You are never going to know for sure.
- I have been a part of lots of these. I am not always sure every decision was 100 percent correct. I expect you will never know either. What I do know is that the indecision or unwillingness to act is the wrong decision unless you do not believe in your administrators. In which case that is the action you should be taking. Let me put it simply, when the train of thought is “what will the community say” instead of “what is best for kids”, we get ourselves into significant trouble.