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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Burden of Responsibility

Tonight’s Blog will begin with a brief look at a cliché and then proceed to an old and controversial study on stress. Both of these subjects converged as I worked on the budget over the weekend. The cliché is one that has echoed in many homes where parents face the challenge of rearing children. The research was rightfully criticized on an ethical level due to the pain inflicted on the animal subjects participating in the study.

First the cliché:  I have never subscribed to the apologetic-like exclamation, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" that some people assert prior to delivering bad news or administering punishment. Surely, one would hope that the parent winces from the need to discipline a child because it represents a bad choice or action on the part of the child to warrant negative reinforcement. While there might be some residual emotional or psychological “hurt” (or regret and guilt) for the disappointed parent, the child is the recipient of the punishment and likely incurs more of the hurt than the parent.

Now for the study:
Brady’s executive monkeys (1958). Extracted from the following website:
Brady yoked two monkeys together and administered electric shocks every 20 seconds for six-hour periods. One of the monkeys, the ‘executive,’ was able to press a lever that delayed the shocks for 20 seconds. However, it was unable to stop all shocks.
Many of the ‘executives’ died of stomach ulcers.
Brady concluded it was the stress of being in control that had caused the ulcers. It couldn’t have been the shocks per se since the other monkey got the same number of shocks to its feet but didn’t get ulcers.
(Please note: while I hold an executive position and more than a few people think superintendents act like monkeys, in this experiment the term executive monkey refers to the monkey’s role as the one in charge of the lever mitigating shocks)
I had to deliver the prospect of unfortunate news to anxious teachers on the day prior to a contract language imposed deadline for notifying staff members who may possibly be impacted by budget reductions. Although we have constructed a budget that does not include any such reductions, the potential for a defeated budget vote would precipitate lay-offs since we have exhausted nearly every other avenue for cuts besides personnel. Upon entering my office, each person appeared to be struck with the realization of what the meeting was about.
I haven’t slept well at all the last few weeks as we navigated through the turbulent financial white-water wreaking havoc on our budget, and ultimately on the staff and learners of our school district. The burden of responsibility for trying to exercise any and all measures to avoid personnel cuts has proven to be substantial, but I can't complain. It doesn’t begin to approach the shock and effect that these teachers experienced. Several of the teachers are the age of my own daughter (a teacher in another district) and I thought about how I’d feel if she was receiving news like this.
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the teachers to hear my explanation about the inequity of the state formula used to distribute funds to public schools in New York, the sharp decrease in federal dollars, and the significant loss of local revenue from the local Power Plant. Anything I said after identifying the percentage of reduction to their position (no position was eliminated) was probably lost on the individual, swept away by fears emerging from the impact.
I felt terrible. I wish I could’ve averted the need to inform people of such depressing news but the weary economy and constrictions imposed by the state government and department of education have prompted this unfortunate exchange between superintendent and staff members to be replicated throughout nearly every school district in the state.

On May 15th we will await the outcome of the vote and discover whether any of these possible reductions will be required to be implemented. Until then, my suffering as the bearer of bad news will continue to pale in comparison to those who may have their dreams put on hold due to a confluence of financial problems beyond their control. I am hopeful that the support of the community will prevail during this difficult economy and we will resume our pursuit of excellence with an intact staff.

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