The Snow-Day Decision
The public's unforgiving criticism of the recent snowstorm that hit the northeast offers an exaggerated insight into the ongoing commentary about the work of educators and the politicians who they have voted into office. It is good to have open discussions. But Monday morning quarterbacking is best only done by those who have made the decisions. For them it is called reflection. Including in that reflection those affected by the decisions is wisdom. Framing the thoughts of the public, or the school community as questions, for example, can help those making decisions to understand the thoughts of those she or he affects by that decision. Instead of asking, "What do you think?" about the results of a decision, asking questions more like, "How did the decision affect you and your family?" and "Given the information we had at the time, what might you have thought a better decision might have been?"
Following some of the criticism folks are sharing about the decisions of Mayor DeBlasio, Governor Cuomo, and Governor Christie and their decisions to shut down all public transportation, bridges, and highways can serve as revealing lessons about burdens that leaders shoulder and how to handle them. Superintendents know all too well the angst involved in the decision to close schools when weather reports suggest impending conditions. But this lesson can go beyond weather.
Questions Change The Conversation
More times than not news interviews begin with, "What do you think?" Or after a news report a request goes out to the public to Tweet or Email what they think. Expressing opinions without knowing all the considerations has become a regular invitation for criticism. In our free society that is a freedom we hold precious. Let's not blame social media for the ease with which the public can express dismay. Let's not blame the news, which has turned more into a series of editorials and predictions than a report of what is actually happening. Let's blame the questions...something we certainly can control. Instead of news reporters asking if folks thought those making the decisions to shut things down made the right choice or over reacted, although it might be less fun to watch, what if they asked, "Given this list of factual information they had at the time they made the decision, how might you have acted differently?" Not likely that news reports will change, but school leaders can.
The relationship with those affected by decisions is the first place to question:
- Do I have a relationship based upon trust with my (whatever group is impacted)?
- If so, what do I have to do in order to maintain that trust?
- And if I do not have a trusting relationship with them, how can I begin building one?
The reason for the trust is not to create an environment in which decisions are not questioned, but to create an environment in which decisions are understood, respected, and if they turn out to be less than effective, a process for re-evaluation is open and welcomed.
Stepping away from the weather metaphor, the implementation of assessment (testing) as a means of evaluating student and teacher performance serves as an example. In those states in which the call for the use of standardized test results as a means of sorting students and teachers into categories, initial responses were dutiful. What followed though were complaints from parents and teachers about the amount of time spent on testing students and the concerns about how high stakes testing was stressing both students and teachers. Proactive school leaders opened conversations before implementing the changes. They asked:
- If more assessments were to be required, they asked, are there assessments that can be eliminated?
- If different types of assessments were to be implemented, what types of preparation are needed for faculty and students?
- If these changes are happening in our schools, how are we going to educate parents?
When changes are put in place without these proactive questions, and the response to them is critical, the result is the formation of camps; those that made the decision vs. those who disagree with the decision. The work for the leader is different in this situation. Although some might argue that implementation timelines do not allow for time spent on creating understanding...(like happens with weather, understandably), that time is always spent in response to the unhappy ones after the implementation takes place and the result is rarely galvanizing.
In the case of the weather in the northeast, streets were cleared and people remained safe. But because of that, businesses lost income, as they either couldn't get there to open, or their customers were home safe. No decision is without consequence. The decision makers were relying on facts presented to them by professionals in the field of meteorology. Their decisions were made in order to keep the people living in their cities and states safe. The professionals' predictions, in some cases, were wrong and the mantra of those making the decisions is "Better safe than sorry."
School Leaders Can Make a Difference
In the case of schools, consider the lessons to be learned. They rest in how and when the question is asked. Time before the decision is key. Inclusion and good listening are essential. And asking the right questions, whether before or after a decision is made is paramount. Given the facts of the case, and the conditions of those affected, and open, honest communication, a community of trust can be built...among those who are willing.