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Supervisors Opinion

Dealing with Difficult People

They can help clarify your mission.

Earl Watkins entered the Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools as superintendent to sobering feedback from the public. Less-than-happy parents and business partners had concerns. Parents reported that school folks didn't really listen to them. Seeing opportunity where others saw a can of worms, he initiated a sustained effort to orient all 58 of the Jackson schools and its central office to the idea that customer service is worthy and can build support for student learning. The district started at ground zero to build a culture of courtesy and respect in the daily operations of its schools. Starting modestly, the staff conducted workshops on positive interactions with the public, and a standard positive greeting was established in all school offices.

Lucy Hansford, communications specialist in the Jackson schools, has been instrumental in this ongoing campaign to help district employees become more responsive to the community. She realized that community members with less-than sunny dispositions or unrealistic demands could put administrators in tough situations. Feedback cards for the community at each school, titled "Your Opinion Matters," indicated that administrators had to convince parents that they listened.

Strategies for Difficult People

In response, Hansford hosted training sessions titled "Seven Habits of Customer- Service-Focused Administrators." In related training sessions, she also shared strategies for dealing with difficult, demanding, or vociferous people. Some cornerstones of her advice to administrators include:

- Let people have their say without interruption. This venting is necessary to allow the administrator to move to a solution.

- Express empathy for the ideas shared. You don't have to agree.

- Avoid a standoff . Move around obstacles to focus on what you can do.

- Suggest solutions and affirm the steps you will take.

- Follow through on what you agreed.

If your school develops a reputation for putting students first, situations will be easier to handle.

The district also reached out to the community and employees by providing opportunities to meet with district administrative staff and school board members. For example, in "Super Size Your Lunch," employee groups meet with school board members for informal lunch discussions.

This campaign has had a positive impact. Bus drivers, custodians, office staff , business staff , and teachers have been trained and understand the message that Jackson Public Schools are service oriented. In dealing with angry parents, Hansford suggests that administrators display a positive attitude, admit mistakes, and commit to student success.

Delicate Balance

It was this last point that hit home for me. School principals conduct a delicate dance between the demands of parents, the concerns of teachers, and the dictates of the central office. It is hard to keep all of these interest groups happy. However, the behavior of difficult people, whether they are parents, teachers or community members, must be addressed, as to ignore it is to give it de facto acceptance. As a school principal, I negotiated this dance by developing a very clear sense of mission. It boiled down to one nonnegotiable fact-students come first, and their individual success and achievement is the bottom line.

As a principal, it's important to share this core belief with staff and teachers. As your actions demonstrate this core belief, there is a greater likelihood that your school will be more child centered. If your school develops a reputation for putting students first, situations will be easier to handle. Difficult people -whether they are parents or staff -may disagree about particular points in a dispute, but you can likely find a solution to move forward if you can agree that all have a common interest: the welfare of the student.

Eamonn O'Donovan is director of middle school support at Capistrano Unified School District in California.