"Oh My God - It's Happening!"

Authors Note: The content below is not meant to put down any district or individual leadership decision. Instead, my goal is to present leaders with a different way of responding to state and federal mandates.


We all work in different settings with unique dynamics. The opinions shared below come from my own personal experiences. My hope is that no friends or colleagues take offense to the thoughts and ideas shared below.


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Today’s school leaders are dealing with more bureaucracy and political pressure than ever before.


Over the past two years, school leaders have been asked to interpret rulings and make decisions while politicians argue over how to handle the COVID pandemic. Whether it be virtual learning, student masking, contact tracing, or staff vaccinations ... it seems like something new is always expected of schools.

Clearly, these are important topics. Leaders must be careful to understand the social and political landscape to ensure they are not getting their district into legal trouble. However, some school leaders have become so consumed with the actions of local and federal legislators that they have lost focus of what really matters: the employees they serve.


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On November 5, 2021, OSHA published its new Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) mandating that employers with 100 or more employees require all employees get fully vaccinated for COVID or be required to wear a face covering and undergo weekly testing.

When this “mandate” was announced, many school leaders dropped everything and immediately began planning new policies and procedures. Just like Michael Scott yelling “Oh my God! Okay, it’s happening!” in the viral The Office clip, many school leaders emerged from their offices and quickly alerted staff of changes that were coming.

While leaders thought an immediate response was necessary, this knee-jerk reaction backfired in many districts. Rather than put staff at ease, their actions did nothing but create chaos and raise questions such as “Where will I get tested?”, “Do I have to wear a mask?”, and “Will I get fired if I don’t comply?”

On November 12th, 2021, the US Court of Appeals ordered that OSHA "take no steps to implement or enforce" the ETS "until further court order." A short time later, OSHA “suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS pending future developments in the litigation.”

Only a few days removed from telling staff their life was about to change, administrators had to reverse course and inform staff that the mandate was on hold. While some leaders apologized to staff, most brushed it off as “politics” and moved on with their week, as if to say “No harm, no foul.”


I beg to differ.

This type of response is incredibly harmful to staff the exact reason stress levels in schools are at all-time highs.


Far too many school leaders believe they have to immediately react to everything that the “state” and “feds” say. Rather than take a wait and see approach, many leaders emphatically tell staff a mandate must be followed. "Making sure we stay out of legal trouble is our top priority," these leaders proclaim.


But should it be their top priority?


If school leaders asked employees, "What should be our top priority?", I'm fairly certain teacher burnout and employee shortage would top the list. If fact, I doubt "following legislative mandates" would even register.


Ironically - when school leaders focus on implementing legislative mandates - they only compound teacher burnout and employee shortage issues.


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At this point, some readers are likely feeling defensive.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Your district is nothing like ours!”

Certainly, there will be some who criticize me and for taking a “laid back” approach when it comes to handling state and federal mandates. I’ve heard whispers - even within my own district - that I don’t take reporting, policy, and protocols serious enough.

While I get that schools need to be compliant, I also would argue that there are only so many hours in the day. Would my best use of time be spent with staff ... or researching the difference between a 2-ply and 3-ply face masks?

“Don't get smart! You’re playing with fire and going to get burned!"

Ok, fine. Let’s say you slip up and don’t follow a mandate. What actually happens when you “get in trouble” with the state?

If history is any indication, very little.

Here in Iowa, one of the most highly-publicized examples of noncompliance was when a very large district illegally took $10 million dollars (!!) from its reserves over two years to spend on operating costs - mainly additional teaching positions. What did the superintendent get for such an egregious act? A measly little reprimand from the Board of Educational Examiners.

I’m no legal expert ... but I’m guessing $10 million dollars is a bigger issue than a handful of employees who refuse to wear a mask to work.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting leaders ignore recommendations. Those who stubbornly disregard every bit of governance don’t last too long in this profession.

What I am suggesting is that school leaders stop worrying so much about what is outside their control (political sanctions) and instead worry about what is within their control (staff well-being).

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In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker suggests the following:

(Managers must) identify time-wasters by looking for the recurrent "crisis". This is a crisis that comes back year after year. A crisis that recurs a second time is a crisis that must not occur again. A recurrent crisis should have always been foreseen. The recurrent crisis is simply a symptom of sloppiness and laziness.

School leaders must stop viewing every state or federal mandate as a crisis. Instead, school leaders should have principles to calmly fall back upon when new recommendations occur. Below are seven basic ideas to consider.

Gather Input from Leaders: When new mandates are handed down, school leaders should bring their leadership team together to discuss the decision. But rather than tell what will be done, school leaders must ask questions of their lieutenants. How might this impact your building or department? How might this impact your staff? Do you believe this mandate is feasible? What blind spots do I have when looking at this mandate?

Informal Conversations: As has been discussed at length, school leaders cannot make decisions from the comforts of their office. Instead, they must get their hands dirty by getting into the trenches of their organization to take an accurate pulse on employees. Are staff ok with this new recommendation, or is there stiff opposition? Authentic leaders encourage perspectives from all employees ... whereas politically-minded bosses lean on a few to speak for the masses.

Connect with Other Districts: Administrators must connect with other leaders to understand how things are playing out in their districts. When new mandates are handed down, I love connecting with the other schools in our conference. Is your school going along with what most are doing, or are you an outlier? Most leaders find it easy to gain support when stakeholders realize that other districts are using the same approach.

I sent this Google Sheet to all Superintendents in my conference for feedback.

Pull Data Together: Once conversations with leaders, employees, and other districts have occurred, school leaders should make sense of the data. If the feedback to the mandate is positive or indifferent, the leaders should be good to move forward. But if the feedback to the mandate is strongly opposed, the school leader must consider alternative options. Very few leaders actually put in time to summarize the data they collect.


Remove Feelings: Once several conversations have happened and data has been collected, district leaders must objectively look at the data for the purpose of making the best decision or recommendation. Unfortunately, many district leaders ignore their staff and go with personal feelings or political allegiances. This is a huge mistake. The best school leaders put their ego to the side and serve the stakeholders they lead.


School Board: In many cases, mandates must go before the board. District leaders should be prepared for these conversations by having data ready to share with the board. Since they already know how their employees feel, district leaders should advocate for their employees. Even if the board goes against your wishes (which has happened to me multiple times), word of your actions will spread and you will quickly gain employee allegiance.

Reassure Staff: Once a decision has been made, school leaders must go back to staff and make them aware of any updates. Far too often, school leaders shy away from sending all-staff communications for fear of spamming employee inboxes. Instead, leaders should err on the side of providing updates. Furthermore, leaders should view these communications as opportunities to double-down on their philosophy for making these types of decisions.



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I have sometimes been criticized for being too laid back when it comes to “mandates.”

But, it’s a weakness I’m willing to live with because the benefits are so high.

Rather than worry about pleasing lawmakers in a faraway city, leaders must focus on doing what is best for the employees they serve.

 

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