Larry Brown did better financially with the New York Knicks after he was fired as the coach in November of 2006 than I did a few months after I was canned (or, in euphemistic education-speak, not rehired for the following year) as head of school. In the middle of my school’s first capital campaign, January 2007, I was told to keep this news confidential so enrollment or the campaign wouldn't be affected. I did as told, fearing what might be said about me in my next job search. That spring, I flew across the country trying to find work, but I never took a sick day and finished my job that June.
I hated being fired. Every ounce of it. Breaking the news to my wife and my children. Knowing the season of headships had already sailed. Taking a beating financially as we sold our house in a rush and moved to Northern California where we rented a home. Having to explain in job interviews what happened and wondering if Hester Prynne had gotten her cousin to emblazon a scarlet “F” on my blazer.
Here is the corollary: As someone who started doing division head work in 1988, I have been on the other side. I find the process of firing gut-wrenching, painful, nauseating, and emotionally exhausting. On the other end of that news is a human being, often times with a spouse, family, mortgage, parents, a history with the school, friends, and profound dreams of a future at the school. For teachers, I try to communicate that news in January, so that they can find like work and compete for jobs nationally. A bizarre kabuki dance ensues, in which we live and work with each other for another five months—unique to academia, I think. Teachers carry the same emotions toward me as I carried toward the founder of the school, who canned me: fury, outrage, brokenness, upset, sadness, and fear.
I get it. It is the nature of the business. A horrible part of the business. Companies and other organizations do it all the time, as do the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Bucs, on a regular and predictable rotation. That doesn’t mean it is enjoyable.
First, here are some of my takeaways for the canned/fired/not rehired:
- Find kind, compassionate, and helpful people. Mine were two sitting heads at the time, Paul Chapman and Margaret Gragg, and the great independent school educator, David Mallery. Though they’d never been canned, they listened to me and provided a dose of perspective: The story would be mine, and the way I moved on was up to me.
- At some point, the act of being fired will come in handy when you least expect it. After the stock market collapse of 2008 and the impending economic meltdown in the housing and financial sectors, I met with parents who had been let go/fired, and I had a deeper level of compassion and I understood their fear for their family in a way I would have never known.
- Certain teachers and their teachings will come back to you. Mine were my high school football coaches, both World War II veterans, who pounded into me to never give up, to be accountable to your teammates, to play until the game was over and walk off the field, knowing you have given your all no matter the circumstance and score. I helped to raise money for the school’s first capital campaign, and I did my best. Every day. My integrity was intact.
- Perhaps, grace and luck will come your way as it did for me. My loving wife and three kids, siblings, and friends all kept me afloat, hoping to move me to another, hopefully safer, harbor. There are many variables to consider in how the transition unfolds, from whether you have kids to your flexibility in location, but accessing emotional support from one or many sources provides a necessary stability as you navigate the unknown.
As for those who let go/don’t rehire/fire:
No matter what side you’re on, the event is part of your history now. You are the one who gets to write the narrative on whether this history will have embittered, paralyzed, or hardened you beyond recognition to your loved ones. Or yourself. Or, perhaps, through time, love of family and friends, perspective and a dollop of grace and luck, perhaps the narrative you will write will include humility, compassion, wisdom, and humanity. Perhaps, you might be a better educator. Perhaps, even a better person.
- If it is ever easy delivering this kind of news, quit immediately. It should never be easy. Just because we have reality TV, which highlights firing people, that doesn’t make this easy. From my experience, delivering news directly is the best approach.
- Give the person leaving the time and space. Deliver the news in a timely fashion, so that they have a level playing field to find similar work (typically January for teaching roles). It is unethical to prevent the person from having this opportunity. Though they’ve likely gone to department heads or other faculty for references or help, check in and follow up with them to see if anything else needs to be processed.
- Be mindful of the effect the news will have on others, including teachers and parents. Do not retreat into your office. Continue to do carpool, walk the halls, attend sporting events. Do the work that your job demands.
- The weight of hiring their replacement now rests on your shoulders. That mantle of responsibility is real and who you hire as the replacement will have multiple ripple effects into the community. I always try to communicate the news to the faculty in a respectful and confidential manner, and I do the same for parents who ask. (And remember, if you are firing Larry Brown, don’t think hiring Isaiah Thomas is going to help your culture.)
- The kabuki dance at school for five months will be really awkward between the two of you. It’s helpful to lean on other administrators who have had shared experiences as you go through the process.