Feature

Anger Management

Anxiety and rage come with uncertain times. The best response: Listen and collaborate. by KITTY PORTERFIELD AND MEG CARNES

School leaders are reporting an uptick in anger in their communities these days — often diffuse, unfocused anger — among staff members, parents and neighbors.

“I call them ‘parent bullies,’” one superintendent commented recently. A mother stormed into a principal’s office, he recalled, and “read him the riot act” over a small misunderstanding. The next day her husband came in to apologize.

“I lost my job six months ago,” he confided to the principal, “and now our house is on the market. My wife is beside herself with fear. She didn’t mean what she said yesterday.”

Porterfield CarnesMeg Carnes (left) and Kitty Porterfield are co-authors of Why School Communication Matters


Elsewhere, parents are organizing in neighborhood groups and attacking any school issue with a fervor once saved for proposals for a new sex education program or arguments about prayer in schools.

School leaders report that faculty and staff members are turning on each other.

“I had to institute a new code of civility in our divisionwide faculty meetings,” another superintendent recounts. “At every meeting, I say, ‘We can disagree all we want, but we will do it with respect. We are not going to yell and call each other names.’”

First Impulses
Uncertain times. Widespread, vague anxiety. Rage. What’s going on?

No doubt local issues, generational issues and personal politics are in part to blame, but surely the grave economic state we live in is part of the mix. Few of the adults in our school community are untouched by this stress. As it has so many times in the past, the school once again has become a lightning rod for the community’s emotions.

The declining economy fuels media fires as well. The Washington Post headlined a recent Page One story “D.C. Area Schools Chiefs’ Perk That Refreshes: Travel,” taking local superintendents to task for time out of their school districts. The article did not suggest improprieties or embezzled funds, but it featured pejorative phrases like “freedom to roam” and “unnoticed perk.” As our economy struggles, stories like this one will continue to appear — if they haven’t already — in newspapers and blogs and on television news in communities all across the country.

What is an education leader to do? The first impulse in the face of threat is to toughen up, tighten down and begin broadcasting our messages.
“Let’s send out a press release listing all the ways we are managing the crisis,” we say.

That may not be a bad idea, but we would suggest three additional models of leadership and communication to bring your community through the tough times.

The leader as listener. “I told the deputy that we were just going to sit and listen, no matter how hard that was. And it was hard,” began one superintendent. “This parent has a real reputation for his arrogance and repeated attacks. It took 45 minutes for him to wind down, but in the end, he had a couple of interesting things to say. We learned that there were unintended consequences to our actions.

“We’ve made changes. And we haven’t seen Mr. Henry since. He needed to know that we were listening.”

Anyone who regularly answers phones in a school office knows that listening alone can defuse anger. (You have no idea how many “problems” never reach your desk because an astute assistant has just listened to someone vent.)

But real listening — closing the door and focusing on the face or faces in front of you — offers much more than just immediate solutions. At its core, listening is curiosity.

“A patient, understanding listener lives in a larger world,” says, of all people, musician Wynton Marsalis.

In uncertain times, we ask our colleagues, “What keeps you up at night?” But have you asked your employees or your parents that same question? Do you really know what is worrying them? When was the last time you asked your stakeholders, “What energizes you? What moves you to support teaching and learning in our schools?” Their answers might surprise you.

So many of the messages that we carefully send out to parents, staff members and the community are the messages we want them to hear. These messages are often not responses to questions that our stakeholders are asking. Is it any wonder our communities feel disconnected from our schools?

Many of today’s most successful superintendents use technology to survey their stakeholders regularly. Online and telephone surveys can be short, fast and relatively inexpensive, and they can provide immediate feedback. Reading and writing community blogs and online bulletin boards is another way of hearing what folks are saying about the schools.

We are happy to view posts like these:

I’m very encouraged by many aspects of the strategic plan, especially the “encompassing of each and every student” and developing the whole child …

I’m thrilled to see the school district take the lead in developing and implementing a pre-K program for all four year olds …

But here’s a different response from a parent. Does it give you some sense of what makes folks mad?

Last week, I posted some questions on the Facebook page for [the school board chair’s re-election campaign] ... When no one replied (business as usual), I posted another comment that basically said I was fed up with the lack of response from the school board over the last two months, and I said that [the chair] would NOT be getting my vote. … Those posts are gone from her Facebook campaign page.

Listening offers the chance to build connections. The more confused the world we live in, the more adults are seeking to feel connected to something strong and true. Employees, parents and even community members are looking to schools as a secure anchor in the storm. Listening is one way to make that connection.

The leader as collaborator. In critical times, says author Parker Palmer, we can draw strength from two sources — one inside ourselves and the other by being “in community” with other kindred souls. In the school district communications office where we once worked together, when any crisis hit, we drew the communications staff together for frequent, brief meetings during the day. We reviewed what we knew at that time and, using large sheets of newsprint, we listed the major stakeholder groups affected, what needed to be done and in what order, who needed to know what, and as many possible strategies for getting the job under way as we could muster. That collaboration kept us on the message, minimized confusion and heightened our chances of success.

Understanding the Rage by Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes


No one likes to listen to complaints, to sit still while someone dumps a load of rage on your desk. It helps to understand why people get angry. Understanding also may help to shape the solution. According to those who study human behavior, there are some fundamental reasons why we get angry.

read more


At a time when our nation feels betrayed by so many of its political and business leaders, the call for collaboration is strong. Recently, teachers in two highly touted KIPP schools decided to unionize because they felt they did not have enough say in school management. Parents, when they feel shut out of decision-making processes, gather supporters and mount huge, noisy protests. These “parent bullies” are pleading to be included.

The generation gap between boomer administrators and Gen-X parents or staff members only exacerbates the issue. Many younger employees and stakeholders have been raised to expect a seat at the table and immediate feedback to their contributions. They want complete, accurate information at their fingertips to help them make decisions, for themselves and for you. They expect to collaborate!

The good news, writes James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, is that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

He adds: “Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.”
We in schools don’t often trust that wisdom, especially when it means inviting in outside voices. Instead of closing off the conversation, we should turn our attention to creating those right circumstances for collaborative problem solving.

As the stimulus dollars trickle (or rush) down, public schools will be feeling intense scrutiny from taxpayers who want to know that these rescue efforts are being well managed. Now is a great time to increase the collaborative nature of your leadership.

Start small: Has the senior-citizen voting coalition in your community effectively blocked your bond issues? What about a steering committee of seniors and staff to create some joint programs? A “senior prom” for seniors and students? Regular hours for school hall walking (like mall walking) for safe senior exercise? Free tickets to the spring musical with escorts at the curb?

Start critical: Are you living with a “gotcha media”? Schedule regular meetings in your office with the newspaper editor, the local education reporter and the general manager of the television station. Don’t berate them. Instead, describe for them your vision for the school system. Give them a clear sense of the limitations of your resources. Let them see how decisions get made. While you are at it, ask them questions: What do they think the community wants to know? How do they perceive the leadership of the school district?

You will never agree on everything, but the endgame is building relationships. It is about creating a process for dialogue, to keep people talking and looking for solutions together. The more they know and respect you, the harder it is for them to blindside you.

The leader as stabilizer and as change agent. Here is the paradox: In this unstable world, you are being asked both to lead change and to create shelter for grown-ups who feel alienated and fearful of change. Above all, parents want you to keep their children safe, not just from playground bullies but also from vague fears they cannot name.

As tax revenues shrink and bond issues never even reach the ballot, schools face a sea change in what services can be delivered to students and families. (A four-day school week? Longer walking routes? Staff furloughs? No after-school programs? A cell tower in the school yard to generate revenue?) And parents are asking for clarity, simplicity of message, openness and assurances these cuts will not hurt their child. It looks like a perfect storm.

Interestingly, the skills and the strengths that help a leader create stability are the same ones that will help him or her lead change. Chief among these is trust.
Trust is built in small increments, in everyday interactions: how politely a parent is greeted in the front office; how quickly a teacher responds to e-mail; how often a principal is seen in the hall greeting students and teachers; whether the superintendent shows up at Chamber of Commerce meetings. Building trust is not brain surgery, but it does take time, energy and your very best intention.

A senior administrator in our town has been in the district for nearly 40 years. When he was a teacher, he began writing notes of thanks and congratulations to students, colleagues and parents, a practice he continues to this day. Many of his former students still have those notes tucked in their scrapbooks. Most of the parents in the district would trust this man with their children’s lives.

Trust rests on three factors — integrity, demonstrated competency and a sense of mutual respect.

•  Integrity. When the chips are down, your reputation, your integrity, may be all you have to count on. It is worth protecting at all costs. Of those 11 superintendents named in The Washington Post article about out-of-town travel, some will never hear a word from their communities about their travel, and others will probably be questioned closely. The difference rests in large measure on their reputations. 

•  Competency. Demonstrating competency, aligning your words and actions, is another matter of small things: Is your blog on the website the day you said it would be? Are the doors of the central office unlocked in time to accommodate the evening meeting? Are the school buildings clean and well tended? Research shows your competency and even the quality of education you provide are judged as much by this tangible evidence as by scores on the state report card.

•  Respect. “I couldn’t believe she walked across the room to shake my hand,” a young mother said of the new superintendent. “I felt respected. I felt like she would really take care of my son.”

We have all received phone calls from parents frustrated by being passed on or ignored by other school employees. No respect. Perhaps you yourself have stood in line in the auto repair shop while (at least it seemed) everyone else was getting served first. No explanation. No “I’ll be with you in a moment.” No respect. Not much fun. It happens to our stakeholders all the time, and it undermines their trust. (Are you looking for a new repair shop?)

Sense and Meaning
A little chaos in our schools now and then is probably a good thing. It pushes us to new ground. It forces us to weed out what’s not working and sharpen our skills. What we may face in the months ahead, however, may call for more than minor changes.

Guiding your community through these days will take careful listening, clear and focused messages that address the questions and fears of our stakeholders, and careful attention to all the relationships between the school division and the community.

We know that in a crisis two of the most important tasks leaders must immediately undertake are, first, making some sense of the event for themselves and, second, making meaning for others.

Schools are one of the key places in communities where meaning making takes place. Meaning making does not come in PowerPoint slides or regulations. It comes in relationships, in collaboration, in two-way conversations. Schools and districts that talk together don’t come apart at the seams — they grow and thrive, even in the worst of times.

Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes are partners in Porterfield & Carnes Communications in Alexandria, Va. E-mail: kitty@porter fieldandcarnes.com. This article is adapted from their book Why School Communication Matters (co-published by AASA and Rowman & Littlefield Education). AASA members save 20 percent using code AASA20. Order from www.rowmaneducation.com.