Managing a crisis

From time to time, all school boards and leaders endure what are politely termed “those days”, or less politely – “crises”.

It may be a depressing thought, but the philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that crises should no longer be considered as “exceptions” to the normal order, but we should acknowledge that we are now living in a permanent state of exceptions.  Martin Amis agrees, calling this “the Age of Vanished Normalcy”, while Stephen McAlpine relates this to the growing hostility in society towards Christian education by identifying our era as “Exile Stage Two”.

In other words, we are now living and working in an era where exceptions are the norm – to which I respond “what a great foundation to start your next strategic planning session” (yes, sarcasm alert!).

At a national and international scale, Žižek claims our leaders deliberately keep talking about crises as a mask to hide the need to take genuine action.  Sir Humphrey Appleby (of “Yes Prime Minister” fame) would have agreed, as he once argued that “politicians like to panic – they need activity; it’s their substitute for achievement”.

In stark contrast, school boards and leaders do not have that luxury (and neither, it could be argued, should national and international leaders).  When a crisis hits, schools – and their boards – MUST act.

Crises are usually unpredictable, and can be triggered by a myriad of causes – the sudden death of a student or a teacher, a blogger or a journalist with an axe to grind, a disgruntled former employee, staff who are upset about the pace of change (which may be too slow or too fast depending on the situation), changes in workload, reductions in benefits, the expulsion of a popular student or the dismissal of a popular teacher, parents’ concern about examination results or a perceived lack of sporting successes, a perceived conflict of interest – the list is almost endless.

The spark that triggers a crisis can become a wildfire if a perception grows in the school community that the Board and/or the Principal has mismanaged (or even worse, caused) the situation or incident.  The angry voice of a vocal minority can start to dominate the debate, often out of proportion to the original trigger, after which the personalities of the warring parties can start to become issues in themselves.

Every crisis in any school has its own unique factors that must be taken into account when managing the situation.  However, irrespective of these differences, it is essential that the efforts of the Board and the Principal are unified and coherent, both privately and in public.  The board itself must remain unified and maintain confidentiality having nominated just one person to be the public voice – usually the Principal if it’s a school matter or the Board Chair if it is a governance matter, or alternatively both together if a strong sense of unity needs to be conveyed.

As a general rule, there are certain things that should NOT be done in a crisis:

Schools have been known to take a decade or more to recover from a serious crisis, so crisis management should always be taken very seriously and implemented as early in the crisis as possible.

It will not surprise you to learn that I believe the wisdom of an independent, politically neutral, highly experienced external consultant is not only valuable, but necessary to help guide a school through a process of crisis management.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Find out more about the support we can offer to help schools manage crises on our crisis resolution page.


Learn more about ways to prevent as well as manage crisis resolution in workshops such as OSG-S2 - Creating and Sustaining Healthy Boards in Good Times and Bad as well as in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at