Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mom's on the Roof and We Can't Get Her Down

Tomorrow night, the Superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where I am a school Principal, will make budget recommendations for next year to the Board of Education.  Next year's budget is about $20 million in the red, and so the recommendations will involve substantial cuts.  In a school district, where 85-90% of the budget is spent on people, $20 million is a lot of jobs.

There's an old joke my family likes to tell that goes something like this:

A man is on vacation and his brother is taking care of his cat.  The man calls his brother to check in and asks, "How is the cat?"  The brother says, "The cat's dead."  The man is distraught.  He says, "You can't just tell me like that.  You have to ease me into it.  The first day, you tell me the cat's on the roof and you can't get her down.  The second day, you tell me the cat fell and she's in a coma.  Then on the third day you can tell me the cat died."  The brother apologizes profusely.  Then the man says, "It's ok.  Don't worry about it.  How's mom?"  The brother responds, "Mom's on the roof and we can't get her down."

It's only a joke, and perhaps (depending upon your sense of humor) not that funny of one.  At the same time, however, it illustrates an important point, and one I've been trying to keep in mind as our district goes through this painful process:  Whenever possible, people should have warning of bad news.  That doesn't mean we need to artificially prolong the sharing of news, as the man in the joke would have us do.  But it does mean that, when we can see that something bad is possibly looming, it's a kind gesture to let those affected know.

This is the same principle that lies behind doing inoculation training for critical incidents.  Inoculation training is simply giving people some exposure to what a crisis might be like, what they might experience, and what they can expect.  The principle is that people will be more resistant to stress and more resilient from it if, when the crisis happens, this is not the first time they've considered its possibility.  That's why train engineers are prepared for crashes, and that's why our district is using grant money to have me walk every school's staff through how a crisis in their school would unfold.

Which brings us back to the budget.  We have known since November that big cuts were on the horizon.  I have tried hard to talk candidly with my staff about what those cuts might entail, particularly with our less senior staff whose jobs might be on the line.  We have taken a "we're all in this together" approach to talking about it, even though we know that we won't all bear the burden equally.  I've tried to answer as many "what if" questions as I know the answers to, and I've tried to acknowledge the stress that the uncertainty is causing for everyone.

Tomorrow night, when the Superintendent makes his recommendations, there may well be bad news for a lot of people.  I hope I am correct in saying that there will not be anything that is a brand new surprise to my staff, however.  That doesn't make everything OK, but with any luck it will make it just a little bit easier.


Matt said...

I love it. The dead cat joke is one of my favorites.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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