Feature

I’m Fired: What Shall I Say?

by Charles R. Waggoner


“When it happens you feel like you just died.”

This is how one superintendent described his emotions upon learning from his board of education that his contract was not going to be renewed. Unfortunately, superintendents do get fired, and anyone who has ever gone through that experience, whether a superintendent or not, understands how emotionally devastating it is.

Let’s assume the reason for the superintendent’s dismissal involved no malfeasance on the part of the administrator but only some sort of benign professional hazard that could not be avoided, leading to his discharge. Of course, in the eyes of the board of education, a myriad of potential reasons exist for why the superintendent could be dismissed or why the superintendent’s contract was not renewed. It may be something as simple as the board being comprised of different individuals since the original employment of the superintendent, or the board may just wish to make a change, much the way some people like to drive a new car from time to time. Perhaps the dismissal occurred over an area of substance, such as declining test scores, but more often than not, the superintendent likely has just worn out his welcome in some way. It happens.

All superintendents I have ever known believe they are doing a good job, certainly well above average, giving 100 percent to the task, and are absolutely essential to the operation of the school district. Being fired or let go is completely incongruent to the way superintendents view themselves and their performance.

 

Natural Angst

Whatever the reason for the firing, the most confident of administrators will encounter feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy upon being dismissed. It will naturally raise feelings of anger, spite, vindictiveness and bitterness. The first reaction of anyone is typically to look outside of oneself for “the real reason” or for someone to blame.

The truth may be that the superintendent has done nothing professionally or personally that could be described as wrong. There very well may be no one person or group to blame. It is typically the accumulation of little things that get you. The wrong person was challenged at the wrong time over the wrong issue or someone misconstrued a statement you made or you inadvertently slighted a board member, had to discipline a popular teacher or somehow offended an influential parent that caused hurt feelings to fester and spread. Perhaps a decision was recommended that was not popular with the staff or community.

Whatever actually caused the termination may be something that can never be fully comprehended or articulated, even by the board of education. “We just don’t want you to lead our district anymore; we need to make a change” are difficult words to hear and a bitter pill to swallow.

 

Inquiring Minds

The school board has made its decision and you are dismissed. Candidates for your position are lining up and are being interviewed. Naturally, the folk seeking your position would like to know what exactly went wrong with the present superintendent (you!) that caused the board to make the decision to change leadership.

There is little one can do about what the board chooses to tell (or not tell) the prospective candidates. The ousted superintendent does, however, have a command over what he or she says to the potential successors if and when they ask.

And make no mistake about it, most will want to know. Superintendents travel in small circles, and it is not unlikely that the deposed superintendent may personally know or be acquainted with some of the persons vying for the job. Do you owe it to a personal acquaintance to give the lowdown?

What are you ethically obligated to tell the candidates? Is it sufficient to say, “Politics got me,” or “The board and I did not see eye-to-eye?”

Assume you consider yourself to be a first-rate superintendent and your board of education is comprised of really nasty individuals who do many things that excellent school boards are not supposed to do. They can keep no secrets following executive sessions; they micromanage details that should be left to the administration; they expect and demand preferential treatment from the system they serve; they conduct private chats at the local coffee shop with only a select group of members present and predetermine the outcome of agenda items; they play favorites among the teaching staff, rewarding their friends and punishing the rest; and they spring surprises on the superintendent at the board meetings.

This is a textbook school board from superintendent hell. It would be almost impossible for any superintendent to survive a board of this caliber.

And these are the people who are dismissing you and causing you to have all this angst in your life and career? Wouldn’t it be cathartic to tell anyone who asks how unprofessional this board is? Shout it from the mountaintop to any and all potential successors to keep them from suffering the indignity and anguish you are having?

As the Supremes from Motown so poetically put it in the ’60s, you had better “Stop and Think It Over,” because as we used to say (in the ’60s again), “What goes around comes around.”

Mum’s the Word

Good reasons exist for why the ousted superintendent should keep those natural feelings of anger and pain in check and not vent to a potential successor.

  • This job that you are leaving is still going to be a part of your employment history in years to come.
    One should be mindful of your reputation as it will follow you throughout your entire career. Obviously this particular board does not want you to lead their school system any longer. Even if this is the proverbial “school board from hell,” it is their school system and they make the final determination. People who know you will understand the nature of the board and will continue to appreciate you. Face it: Most community members and employees aren’t going to care. Maintain your dignity and do not embarrass yourself by incessant whining. You aren’t going to change any minds.

     

     

  • Leaving a job is like ending a marriage.
    It is strictly a private matter and waving your filthy laundry in public to whomever will listen serves no purpose. You have no reason to believe nor to predict whether the next superintendent will be just the crackerjack the board is seeking. There is no reason to poison the waters for the next superintendent.

  • You may need the best recommendation possible from some of your current board members for your next position.
    If you do not criticize the board members you are departing, they are more likely to return the courtesy. Shakespeare wrote, “A person is remembered for his entrances and exits.” At one time you were chosen for the job so your entrance must have been more than acceptable. Make your exit that way too.

  • Recognize that every work experience has value, view your lost job as a transition to the next opportunity.
    You have some control over the kind of life that you will look back on. By controlling your aggression, anger and cynicism, you can choose to live a life with less hostility and more heartfelt happiness. Let go and embrace a new opportunity. Victor Frankl realized this during the most extraordinary of circumstances and discussed his conclusions in Man’s Search For Meaning. A Jewish psychiatrist discovered at a most opportune moment, while imprisoned by the Nazis, that between stimulus from the world and any response by the individual, there is the freedom to choose the response.

  • Don’t tip your hand to potential litigation.
    In the remote case that you have any legal action to take, you will not want to tip your hand and give the board time to prepare a case against you before you have the time and opportunity to speak with a lawyer or your professional association. The legal route is not advisable unless you have a solid legal position and can prove your contention of a wrongful discharge. A new employer may take a dim view about employing someone who is suing his or her last employer.

     

The High Road

There is no good way to sugarcoat being fired. “How do I explain my dismissal to a prospective candidate for my job?” or “How do I explain my dismissal to my potential new employers?” are not easy questions to answer. Giving a simple answer to an event that had a multitude of reasons may not suffice. However, a long-winded detailed diatribe is not what the person wants to hear either.

It takes an extra dose of character to act like a professional when the going gets tough. Stay cool, burn bridges at your own peril, there’s nothing to gain from scorching the earth. Keep your objectivity and do not place blame on the board. Even if it were true, no one is going to believe “It was all the board’s fault. I was a perfect superintendent every day and an outstanding performer in every aspect of my job.”

John F. Kennedy has been quoted as saying, “Stick your hand in a bucket of water and then pull it out. The hole that is left is how much you will be missed after you are gone.” Being fired is devastating for the person most affected and his or her family, but beyond a narrowly defined group of those who care, life goes on pretty much as usual.

Do you really want to leave an act of retribution as your final legacy? Your exit will become a big part of how you’ll be remembered. Don’t go out on a nasty note. Rather, embrace those that truly are important in your life and don’t beat yourself up too badly.

 

Charles Waggoner, who retired in January after 5½ years as a superintendent in Havana, Ill., is an assistant professor of education administration at Eastern New Mexico University, Enmu Station 25, Portales, NM 88130. E-mail: charles.waggoner@enmu.edu