I mentioned last week that there have been over 350,000 teaching job losses since 2009. Usually the story of education job cuts stops there. But what really happens once the decision to cut is made? Every state in the union has districts that have experienced a massive shock to their system through a Reduction in Force (RiF). Even when few positions are cut, it still causes loss and trauma. When unions attempt to protect their teachers and students, they are painted as thugs and saboteurs of education. Those labels cause pain on top of the loss the teachers are experiencing. And teachers in districts without unions have almost no protections at all when it comes to job elimination. How do we deal with such a shock to the system?
In his book Managing Transitions – Making the Most Out of Change, William Bridges says it is usually not the changes that cause us problems, but the transitions. Change is not the same as Transition. Change is often a situation or an event (a RiF or a layoff); Transition is the psychological process that people must go through to come to terms with the Change. Once the change happens in your school, everyone involved will go through their own transitions in their own time. It makes it very difficult to deal with trauma that is spread out over that many people, but who are closely confined together.
We are currently faced with a teaching profession suffused with a three-layered trauma: 1) those who are suddenly unemployed facing the loss of their job and often the reverberating effects of that (losing health care, homes, families breaking up, etc.), 2) those who are left to cope with overflowing classrooms and a lack of resources while trying to manage survivor’s guilt and loss, and 3) the always-present cloud of fear and suspense that threatens more imminent job losses.
That’s a lot of trauma. Most districts are unprepared to deal with the psychological and emotional effect this kind of sudden shift in fortune can cause in an organization, much less an entire education system. In our district, we learned several months before the hatchet dropped that we would be facing massive cuts, and it quickly became clear that the district might not have prepared helpful resources enough for our teachers. As a union, we decided we needed to provide what help we could. I drew on my background in Conflict Resolution and drafted several memos we sent to our teachers that provided important resources and tips as they faced the inevitable notices of job loss. As one of those teachers whose position was cut, I can say that no matter your role in your school, being open and honest with the teachers you work with is the most valuable gift you can give them during this horrible process.
We advised our teachers how to go about filing for unemployment insurance. We gave them detailed descriptions of how our recall list works and what protections they had in their contract. We offered suggestions for options on job seeking ideas and how to maintain basic health insurance. But mostly, we offered emotional support. If your district has faced this kind of trauma or may face it soon, having this cushion of acknowledgement and support can make all the difference. A few of the practical tip issues we addressed for our teachers facing layoff:
- Why was MY job cut?
- What can I say when speaking with my Administrator?
- Is it okay to ask for a letter of recommendation or reference?
- Who else knows about my job loss?
- What if I burst into tears at my meeting with my administrator?
- Is there any point in writing down what is said in the meeting?
- What important things can I do after my meeting with the Administrator?”
Later I wrote, and the union distributed, a memo titled “How Do I Cope with This Transition?” This included a more personal conversation with our teachers, including topics such as:
- Am I normal? What are some common reactions to trauma or loss when change happens?
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What are practical ways I can manage my stress?
- I didn’t lose my position, but I still feel guilty and sad. How do I cope with losing my friends?
- I know I wasn’t laid off because of my performance, but I’ve lost confidence in myself as a professional, what do I do?
- Can I get professional help? How?
- Are there any positives left?
It really does help to have someone acknowledge what is happening. Often, when the layoffs are suspected or announced, or even just feared, everyone goes silent. Teachers, used to fending for themselves and their classes, go into survival mode, where they dare to hope for the best, but mentally prepare themselves for the worst. I think we can do more damage to each other by pretending we should just soldier on and that it will somehow get better…. or even, we’ll get used to it.
When I got that layoff notice, I needed my colleagues more than ever, and they needed me. I needed them to treat me just like we finishing a normal school year together and to not feel sorry for me or hug me every time we met in the halls. They needed me to reassure them that I didn’t hold it against them that they kept their jobs. We could do this for each other because we decided to be authentic about what was happening. By reaching out and confronting the uncertainty, we made it safe for all of us to be open with each other and not feel we needed to hide from the circumstances.
We are not the cause of the trauma we are experiencing through these difficult times. The shock to the education system is only the outer shell to a deep and ongoing painful transition that teachers are experiencing throughout the country, both personally and professionally. We’re all in this together, so finding ways to cope together will be much better for us in the long run than pretending it’s just not happening.
To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here.