Tuesday 30th April, 2019, 5am: “A coup is happening right now, switch on your TV” a parent informed me as I was getting ready for work. Indeed, an uprising by the Venezuelan opposition looked like it was taking place. “What do I need to do?”, “We have the IGCSE Mathematics exam today, does it go ahead?”, “Do we close school?” and many more questions needed answering, and needed to be answered quickly. Luckily, we were well prepared in managing crisis situations and were able to act, think and move ahead swiftly and effectively.

After seven years in Caracas, Venezuela, many have asked me to write a book about my time in what is probably the most volatile country in the world over the last decade. I was the school Headteacher/Principal for six years (2014-2020). This article is intended to discuss my experience of leading a school during what turned out to be, a constant crisis situation, through arguably the country’s most difficult period in its history. Maybe a book will follow one day… Please feel free to add comments, questions, suggestions or disagreements.

A school crisis is any traumatic event that seriously disrupts coping and problem-solving abilities of students and school staff. It is typically sudden, unexpected, dramatic and forceful and may even threaten survival. A crisis can cause a drastic and tragic change to the environment. This change is generally overwhelming and uncontrollable as well as unwanted and frightening. It may create a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and vulnerability combined with a loss of safety.

A 2009 research paper titled, ‘Crisis Management in Schools: Evidence-based Postvention’, talks about crisis as being, “Critical incidents in or involving schools include shootings, stabbings, other forms of homicide, terrorist activity, suicide, road traffic accidents, major fires and natural disasters, which result or might result in death and/or serious injury to students and staff.” The NEA describes a crisis in school as, “School crises can be on a large scale, such as severe violence, hostage situations, and natural disasters that require an emergency response from the community.
Or, they can be more individualized, such as a car accident or the unexpected death of a student.”

All of these are of course, valid definitions of the word ‘crisis’ and what constitutes a crisis, however, a few more examples can and should be added to the list (these are very much based on my own experience over the last seven years):

  • Major civil unrest (protests on the streets).
  • Kidnapping.
  • Robberies at gunpoint.
  • Hyperinflation.
  • Currency devaluation.
  • Food shortages.
  • Water shortages.
  • Water rationing.
  • Gas shortages.
  • Fuel shortages
  • Medicine shortages.
  • Power outages.
  • International Sanctions.
  • Issues with travel (both a reduction in flights and issues obtaining correct paperwork).
  • Security (Caracas is the ‘murder capital of the world’).
  • Political instability (e.g. attempted presidential coup, fraudulent elections, two presidents operating in parallel etc)
  • COVID-19.

Situations such as the above spring up on you quickly and how a leader manages the situation is key in moving forward productively, and indeed in many cases, vital for school survival. Much of what is in this article can be used in various scenarios.

I would like to begin by emphasising one of my favourite quotes, “Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.” As with most things in life, a plan will go a long way when faced with difficult situations. Yes it may be that the plan has to be changed, often drastically, but a plan will nevertheless guide ones decisions. Secondly, the WHO recently stated that in a crisis situation you have to think and decide quickly – a quick decision is better than no decision. Take a decision now that you will no doubt have to make later. And finally, “where crisis management plans exist, they might be based on ‘common sense’ or clinical judgement, risking worsening rather than improving outcomes.” By preparation and planning, a leader could improve outcomes instead of thinking intuitively. Furthermore, it allows quick and effective decisions to be taken, another vital aspect of managing crisis situations.

Below are some pertinent and key points with respect to handling a crisis situation based on my own experience.

1.  Communication, communication and communication:  this is ever so important.  Your stakeholders (I include employees, schools, students and parents here) need to hear from YOU.  By writing YOU, I mean the leader – the person they trust the most.  Many messages that have been sent during the current COVID-19 crisis have been empathetic, lovely and assuring – that is the way to do it.  Regular messages are necessary to avoid double guessing. If possible, face-to-face, whether virtual or in person, is the best approach. Be open, transparent and exude confidence to others.

2.  Transparency:  maximum possible transparency is required. This will help avoid distrust, anger, theories, gossip and speculation. Be clear, succinct and any plans presented, should be easily understood.

3.  Sympathy and empathy: Everybody wants to be listened to, and understood. A huge amount of sympathy and empathy is required to all stakeholders, taking into consideration they will most likely have their own issues in their personal lives that they are dealing with. Avoid messages that come across dry and soulless. 

4.  Human beings v Policy: Policies are of course important, however, the human being matters much more.  In all communications there needs to be assurance that you are aware you are dealing with human beings, young people, anxious parents, worried staff who have been stressed for many months, for many years in some cases.  Policies are just policies – dry and black and white, not considering the subtleties nor the nuances of context. Every individual has a story that needs to be listened to and acknowledged. Encourage your leadership team to put aside administrative tasks and talk to the staff body.

5. The Leader Leads:  YOU are the key.  YOU have to stand up and be counted.  Every school, parent and student is relying on YOU. If needed, a constant review of the processes has to be undertaken in fine detail, maybe with some objective unbiased lens – including people with a different angle.  If necessary, changes can and must be made given the evidence of any review.  It takes a strong and humble person to admit ones faults but that is what one does if that is the case.  Keep asking yourself, “has my organisation kept to its vision, its mission, its values and have we role modelled these?”

It is worth noting that in any crisis situation, a team should be formed quickly that can help guide your school through. Carefully select members on this team and be aware that too many will prove counter-productive. However, the leader must lead and it is fair to say, long days working with little sleep is to be expected in such a situation. Rise up to the challenge!

On a personal note, despite the challenges, my seven years in Venezuela were wonderful and will forever be remembered with fond memories. The troubles and obstacles faced may have been difficult, but were a great life experience. Both my daughters are Venezuelan and the country will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Please feel free to add comments, questions, suggestions or disagreements.

Sources:

Crisis Management in Schools: Evidence-based Postvention 2009: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/251442974_Crisis_Management_in_Schools_Evidence-based_Postvention

NEA School Crisis Guide: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/NEA%20School%20Crisis%20Guide%202018.pdf

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