Keeping Hope Alive in Tough Times

Keeping Hope Alive … In Tough Times

These are challenging times for educational leaders.  Expectations for student learning keep rising while available funds shrink.  Leaders face pressures to balance budgets, keep teacher salaries competitive, AND invest more in student learning.  Often the district leaders, especially the superintendent, are the only ones that see the bigger picture.  Teachers see only the shrinking value of their salaries and feel (deservedly) that they should get more.  Board members and business leaders expect you to hold the line by being fiscally responsible.  Principals and parents want to know that you are investing in texts, computers and staffing to help children thrive.

These competing pressures keep you up at night especially during budgeting and bargaining.  In the midst of the maelstrom it is easy to lose heart.  To worry about personal survival.  Will you keep your job if there is a strike?  If the budget ends in the red?  Contrary to popular belief strikes and budget woes ARE survivable.

Yes, some lose their jobs for budget deficits and labor stoppages.  But far more live through the same issues and survive.  What makes the difference? HOW these issues are handled makes the difference.  Having experienced strikes and/or strike aftermaths four times and untold rounds of budget cuts, here are some lessons learned:

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.  Communicate the most when you feel like it the least.  Budgeting and bargaining go on for some time.  They often create a great deal of uncertainty.  The temptation is to say nothing when there is nothing to report.  Avoid that temptation.  Keep communicating.  My goal during a $70M budget cut while superintendent in Seattle was to communicate weekly.  When the dust settled, parents and teachers said, Thank you, for keeping us informed.

Frame the Issues.  Communicating often does NOT mean making promises or painting yourself into the corner.  Explain the dilemma.  Our teachers deserve more money.  We all want the best teachers for our kids that money can buy.  And we need to be fiscally sound and operate prudently with hard earned tax payer dollars.

Identify Key Values.  This is oh, so important.  And so hard to do.  One value for example might be, Keep cuts farthest from the classroom.  Although virtually all of us truly do believe in that value, we may indeed have to make some cuts that impact classrooms.  Without forethought, those published values can and will be used against you later in the process.  Better to make statements that are a bit more flexible.  Something like, Make sustainable reductions across all sectors while minimizing cuts to student learning.

Engage Stakeholders.  Take simplified budget worksheets to schools, PTAs, business leaders and ASK THEM where they would make cuts.  Make clear that you are not asking them to vote.  You do want their input but it will be the board that decides.  Yes, administration will almost always rise to the top.  Show that cuts to administration won’t begin to balance the total need.  At the end of the process you want to show that everyone did their share, while remaining mindful of your key values to student learning.

Explain the process.  Again, HOW you go about the work is as important – more important – than the actual work.  You want everyone to know that you were transparent.  You had a difficult problem.  You explained the problem.  You engaged the stakeholders.  You listened.  You reported back what you learned.  You made the tough decisions based on key values.  And you explained in advance the coming impacts.

Show up.  Go everywhere and anywhere to talk budget.  Schedule lots of meetings.  Publicize them widely.  Report on when and where you were and what you heard from those meetings.  Use twitter and social media.  Let everyone know you care, you take this seriously, you listen.  For everyone that shows up another dozen won’t take the time to come but they will remember they were invited.

Key Partners.  Make dedicated time in your schedule for key partners: labor, parents, principals, and civic partners.  Meet with them early and often.  Let them know that you are making them among the first to know when new budget/staffing information becomes available.  Build a tight schedule; meet with teachers, principals, support staff and PTSA within the same day so they each know they are important.  Let them know that you are doing everything possible to keep them informed.

Never Waste a Good Crisis:  We need to hear things four times before any given message starts to sink in.  By the time you are sick of your message, many will be hearing it for the first time.  Again, weekly communication is ideal.  In the absence of information, rumors prevail.  Use what you learn in forums to include your Q & A.  Yes, there will be rumors.  Don’t let them spread.  Respond.  Over-communicate to reinforce key values and reset expectations.

Tough Choices:  In times of crisis, pressures mount.  Board members, administrators, union leaders feel the heat.  Call them frequently.  Schedule extra meetings.  Answer their questions.  Prepare them for what is coming.  Rally your team.  Call on them to model positive comments and work together to share good information.  Call out naysayers on your team who seek to undermine the process of fairness and equity.  Leaders are known for what they support … and what they tolerate.

Keep Hope Alive:  In times of change and crisis we all fear for the future.  Keep your own batteries charged up.  Meet with colleagues, family, and friends who help “fill your bucket.”  Take the high road.  Avoid demonizing others in labor negotiations.   Remember, and remind others often, We will get through this. We will find a way.  The sun will continue to rise.  We will continue to do good things for our kids.  We must and we will.  Our kids are counting on us.

What have you learned?  What have you tried?  What questions do you have? Contact me.


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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