Last month I conducted a seminar called “3 Keys to Successful School Leadership,” with the 3 Keys being Hire Well, Fire Well and Engage the Donor. Thank you to the many people who shared encouraging notes and comments about this series. In regards to firing well, we have a recent example in the national media of the kind of consequences that ensue when an employee discipline issue is not handled well. In this case the consequences of poor communication were demoralizing and disruptive.
In the last week of school in Haralson County, GA, a middle school student told his bus driver that he was hungry because his lunch card was short by 40 cents, so he was unable to eat lunch at school that day. The bus driver was troubled by this, though not enough to gather more information, and posted a Facebook status recounting the boy's story. He posted his number asking the school's leadership to call him the next time a child was short at the register, and he would pay for that child’s lunch. Shortly thereafter, the bus driver was called into a meeting at the district office and was given two options: retract his post and apologize or be terminated. This gentleman chose not to retract, and was therefore fired. This story has become national news, and the middle school and district is currently dealing with a tremendous amount of negative attention and disruption.
Public and Private Communication
The bus driver took the lazy approach that many parents and teachers fall into--he chose to rebuke the school publicly rather than inquiring privately into the matter. Part of an employment relationship is respecting your peers and leaders. It would have been wise for the bus driver to find out more facts instead of making assumptions about the matter and admonishing the school publicly, thus calling into question the integrity of the leaders.
Parents often make those same kinds of assumptions with one-sided information from the perspective of a young student. In working with parents, I jokingly tell them: "If you'll believe half of what kids say about what happens in school, I’ll believe half of what they say happens in your house!" I'm trying to illustrate, of course, that it is extremely important for those involved to recognize the limited perspective of others and to respectfully work through the facts, rather than publicly undermining peers and leaders by making uninformed assumptions and statements that undermine valuable relationships.
Sequence of Communication
Another important takeaway from this situation is that the sequence of communication matters! The board or district leadership should go first to the administration and faculty in the school to communicate the facts of the situation, their policy, and why they chose to fire the bus driver. It should then be clearly explained to the families and students. And only then to the media and community. By communicating in this sequence the school leaders would have established understanding and support within their organization before communicating with the media and outside community.
Unfortunately, they did the opposite. The superintendent communicated directly with the media, so when things “hit the fan” he lacked a network of support because no one knew what had happened and why. This sequence of events illustrates how vital it is for school leaders (actually anyone) to maintain a proper sequence of communication to sustain relationships and trust in their network.
Hopefully administrators in Haralson County and others will recognize this as an opportunity for training and growth. Being prepared to resolve employee, parent, and/or student complaints is a best practice for school leaders, and while also understand that taking concerns directly to social media undermines peers and leaders and bypasses some important relationships.