I really don’t want to bore readers with my experiences, but, I have to say that over my 26 years in this position I’ve had quite a few! And I have many to draw on and share for others to learn from, laugh at, or to marvel at. I say “to marvel at” because some of the things that have been done by “professionals” are anything but professional, some were downright mean. Now don’t feel bad for me, I had tremendous support from my hall principals, assistant superintendent and superintendent. True, you face the people individually, often on a daily basis, but it was comforting to know that I had the ultimate support that I needed.
I distribute weekly a communication to all staff entitled “Nuts and Bolts.” It is a great tool to keep all staff apprised of what’s happening, upcoming events, scheduled programs, kudos for staff members who have accomplished something “above and beyond”, anything and everything that has to do with what’s going on in our school. It’s one of those tools to draw your school a little bit closer together, as it is easy for people to lose track of what’s taking place. The kudos are especially good, as sharing positive info about what our colleagues are doing generates good vibes throughout….you know what I think about “staff morale”! It also wasn’t my original idea: my high school principal in Lowville, Bill Wormuth, had a weekly missive with the same title. I stole his idea and his title!
Early on I included excerpts from a brochure-like weekly publication called The Master Teacher in each week’s issue of “Nuts and Bolts”. The Master Teacher is produced by an entity with the same name headquartered in Manhattan, Kansas. I would purchase 10 or 12 copies of their publication, give one weekly to each of my probationary teachers and excerpt it for inclusion in my weekly my staff notes. It contained some very useful information, guidance, tips, etc. for effective teaching, hence my desire to share it with everyone, not just probationary teachers. I always cited the source, being clear to include issue and volume numbers along with dates.
So one day I receive an envelope from a Kansas City, Missouri, law firm. Being a curious sort I opened it and found a “cease and desist” order, basically informing me that I was violating copyright law by excerpting The Master Teacher in “Nuts and Bolts”! The letter stated that my excerpting had been brought to their attention by someone at Shaker JH, that they had received several copies of “Nuts and Bolts” to verify, and that I needed to “cease and desist” from the practice. I was somewhat taken aback, to say the least. I had no idea I had been violating copyright, as I clearly cited the work, but I was more concerned that a colleague of mine from Shaker JH had not wanted me to correct a practice so much as they wanted to get me “in trouble” over it. I called the law firm first and indicated I would stop, that I was not aware citing the source was not sufficient. I also asked who had sent them the material. The response was that the signature was scrawled, they couldn’t actually make out a name. But, of course.
I immediately informed my superintendent and assistant superintendent. The superintendent’s response was classic: “OK, stop doing it.” He saved his concern, and his invective, for the anonymous “professional” who had been so underhanded.
I asked my assistant superintendent how best to handle it. He told me to do so up front, to address a faculty meeting with what had taken place. Be honest and say that I didn’t realize what I was doing was illegal and everyone should use it as a caution; there were probably others who also did not realize it was wrong. He also said to thank whoever raised the issue, as it could help several colleagues, and to indicate that I would like to meet with that person to discuss the manner in which it was raised.
I did so…surprise, no one stepped forward to claim the action.
But, a couple of valuable lessons were learned. First is that there are always people among you who would rather “get you” than help you. Not that you’re ever going to change that, but it’s good to keep in mind.
Second, when you make a mistake, own it, and be up front about it. We all make mistakes, it’s how you handle them that stays with people and that says the most about you. Look at the recent politician gaffes; it’s the cover-up and lies that bring people down. Own the problem, address it, and move on. I had two bosses who understood it was just that, a mistake. And we all make mistakes. They realized, and helped me to realize, that the mistake, handled appropriately, did not detract from what I was doing or from being an effective leader.
Lastly, communicating with people is key. Addressing with the entire staff how the copyright issue was handled by a staff member was important; people needed to know what one of their colleagues did, how underhanded one of their colleagues was. People shouldn’t be surprised by your actions. Kids and parents shouldn’t be surprised by grades. Your superintendent shouldn’t be surprised by a school practice or policy. People may not agree with you, but they need to understand where you’re coming from. That can only happen if you communicate. Talk to people, make sure they understand. It is the best policy…at least that’s my perspective.