Focus

The Do's and Don'ts of Coping With Crises

EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS by HARRY E. EASTRIDGE

Experienced administrators know that empty, dazed reaction that comes when crises erupt. You are called on to provide leadership at a time when the normal world seems askew and your resources are drained. It is at times like these your community looks to you as the standard bearer of justice and rational decision-making. As a building or district administrator for more than 25 years, I've had to deal with student deaths, drive-by shootings, sexual predators, termination of employees because of unbelievable acts, threats to me and my family and all the other hideous occurrences that come with any position of authority and responsibility.

I have compiled a few do's and don'ts for you to consider as you prepare for what inevitably will come your way. These are not intended as a prescription, and many of the steps may seem obvious.

The point is to recognize our strengths, our base of support and our need to offer leadership, even when we feel we can do little to alter the prevailing circumstances. We really can and do lead by example, and it is through the heat of such fires that our character and our values are exemplified.

Exaggerated Accounts
Under the category of don'ts, a few suggestions based on personal experiences:

  • Don't watch TV news.

     

    Television always follows the rule "what bleeds leads," and certainly any major school crisis will be at the top of any newscast. I'm convinced that if the local news crews cannot find a sensational story in its own community, they will find one somewhere across the country and make certain your residents believe the same incident is about to happen in your school district.

  • Don't listen to radio talk shows.

     

    Many people believe talk radio is about the news. It's actually entertainment in the form of goofy exchanges between residents, others and the interviewee. Don't let others lead you down a path where you'll be responding to faceless, anonymous characters who must vent periodically.

  • Don't depend on board consensus for true direction.

     

    During most crises, board members are honestly concerned and genuinely interested in helping, but because of their unique positions, they're also at the beck and call of disparate forces and interest groups. An administrator should consider all the emotional reactions to a crisis and allow your own beliefs to guide you through the rights and wrongs of encountering crises head-on, honestly, openly and with a sense of compassion.

    Don't try to respond to every nuance of the problem. In most heavy-duty situations, interest groups in the community and the district will stake out various positions. Respond to the issue but resist being drawn into offering solutions to larger societal problems. Do not allow yourself to be pulled along by the forces attracted to a chaotic situation. Many people try to use crisis situations to forward an agenda that is divisive for the community and the schools.

  • Don't lose the high ground.

     

    As educators, we truly are on the side of the angels. In crisis situations, individuals generally react to the immediacy and to the emotions of the situation. Your focus must remain on the future and how the crisis will be felt by your students, staff and administrators. They look to you as a model for how to deal with such problems.

  • Vital Connections
    Some do's that I have found helpful:

  • Do re-establish home ties.

     

    Remember, while you're suffering, those nearest to you not only are feeling your pain and suffering, but also may be closed out by you. Don't overlook your spouse and children's feelings. While it may be difficult for you to do your job when you're at the center of a controversy, it is always wise to discuss how they are feeling and give some guidance and insight on the situation to them.

    Our family has spoken about how they felt when a crisis occurred and they were feeling threatened. These events are crucial for emotional health and must be put in perspective.

  • Do call upon your faith as your most valuable resource.

     

    These "fox hole" situations will cause you to re-examine many of your deepest fears and hopes. Faith is like love--you cannot give something you don't have.

  • Do focus on the other end of the tunnel.

     

    While the old joke states, "Be careful of the light at the end of the tunnel, for it may be a train coming," I believe that the other end of the tunnel is what you as a school leader must point out during these times. Leaders are expected to rise above situations and express key values and hope.

  • Do write or draw about your feelings.

     

    While this may seem strange, I find that doing drawings such as diagrams or arrows (force-field analysis if you wish), writing about one's feelings or using other non-verbal expressions are crucial during these times. The mind must find meaning. We constantly search for the reasons why. Using visual symbols, as well as other assistance such as music, may help you focus on the crisis and give you a perspective not always found in verbal responses about the issue.

  • Do go into classrooms and be with children at all levels.

     

    Such visits not only will encourage young people, but will give a sense of order. You need to see why you are in this business and draw energy and support for the future from your true base. One of the best times to be in buildings, especially at the high school, is at lunch. These interactions with young people allow you to solicit their thoughts and help them understand the nature of the crisis and how you are attempting to deal fairly with all parties.

  • Do keep the board focused on the principles crucial to the issues.

     

    As Stephen Covey has said, directing the group toward a "true north" is essential. While you cannot answer every question board members may have, keeping the focus on what is best for all parties is crucial.

  • Board Communication
  • Do use a communication source that provides immediacy to board members and administrators.
  • I've found voice mail to be one of the best communications tools. Almost every phone system has access to voice mail. For those who lack voice mail, use an answering machine to serve in a similar fashion. The best way to handle a crisis is to put on the message you want board members to receive indicating the details as you have them and relating what your position will be if asked by the news media.

    Also, you may want to suggest some positions board members may wish to take if they are asked about the incident. Always indicate what has happened, the point person and what could be some reactions to the event. I have used my car's cellular phone to let the board know immediately what is happening. I call my secretary and ask her to contact all board members about listening to their voice mail for an update on the crisis.

  • Do exercise and eat well.

     

    Some of us have a tendency to eat too much under stress and forget to exercise, while others seem to waste away because of the pressure and exhaustion. You must maintain yourself in order to provide leadership.

  • Do look for a peer if you wish to speak about the incident and your feelings.

     

    Many school district leaders have had similar experiences. I would suggest confiding in someone other than your immediate neighbor. Often words of frustration and exasperation have a way of getting replayed back home. The media may call nearby administrators and without intending to, they may communicate things you would not wish to appear public as you are wrestling with the crisis.

    Harry Eastridge is superintendent of the Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County, 5700 West Canal, Valley View, OH 44125. E-mail: cb_harry@lnoca.ohio.gov