In dealing with students, teachers and parents, I have learned something very important. I'm not sure who said it first, but Tia Henricksen was the one who said it last to me. She said something about "seeing beyond your own stuff."
As a principal, I have to be ready to deal with whatever someone brings up, whenever they bring it up. It can be a parent, a student, a teacher or just a concerned community member.
The common thread for most people that we talk to is that whatever a person is dealing with is just about all they can see. I find this absolutely fascinating. In the last few years, there have been many times that I have been involved in something very heavy, with broad implications, and someone comes to me with something that is competitively inconsequential. Let me give you an example from when I was still a teacher, and happened to be in a place where I saw this first hand.
While dealing with students bringing drugs to school and distributing them, a principal was interrupted by a teacher who had crammed her entire class into the office and sat them down on the floor. The teacher demanded that the administration do something about the rampant theft that was a constant issue in the class. For the fourth consecutive day, a student's pencil had come up missing. She (and her class) was not leaving the office until the administration put a stop to the theft and discovered who was stealing pencils every day.
This situation is an extreme example. Yes, the teacher was frustrated by the continual problem of theft. Yes, it was a real issue. No, the principal was not going to sit there and wait for some kid to fess up when she knew that police were on their way to deal with the drug issue. The drug issue had to take priority. She needed to be able to deal with that first.
The principal knew that we had a nearly limitless supply of pencils and we could give every student a new pencil every day and we would still be fine.
At the same time, when I am dealing with a difficult issue at my school, I don't think much about what else is going on at the other schools or at the district level. I am focused on my issues and not what the person I am going to may be dealing with.
How do we as leaders address the issue of people bringing their problems to us and dealing with them appropriately? They may have some real, legitimate concerns, but they may pale in comparison to the issue that we are dealing with?
I have three suggestions: * Be honest about where priorities lie when you hear them and give a timeline for when you can address their issue * Be clear about what they can do on their own. What latitude will you give them in making a decision? * Be sure to follow up if you need to.
Here is a way the conversation could. "Thank you for your concern. Right now, I am dealing with an issue that needs my attention for the next X (minutes, hours, days). I can follow up with you about this in X (minutes, hours, days)."
Most people are reasonable and will be fine with not dealing with it right that second.
One of the things that frustrates me in education is that because we are working with people, nearly everything is an emergency. It doesn't have to be that way. When we see beyond our own stuff, we can see that not everything is an emergency. Maybe we can even try to see something from someone else's perspective.