Managing My Own Emotions

BY GLENN W. "MAX" McGEE/School Administrator, September 2016

“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping those in need of assistance” advises every flight attendant during the pre-takeoff presentation on flight safety.

I should have asked our faculty to do the same, and I deeply regret that in those first few hours and days we did not attend to the emotional needs of our teachers, some of whom had experienced a cluster of suicides in the community five years earlier.

Following one of the deaths, school district leadership, the high school principal, crisis team and community support services held an early-morning meeting with about 100 of the school’s faculty members to communicate the plan for working with students that day. While the crisis team had met previously to draw up the process, the faculty had not, and the emotions were palpable and raw. As I looked around the room, I knew that much more than a script and tactical plan were needed for our teachers.

The student’s death by suicide was traumatic for many, and they needed care that we were not prepared to offer and sadly had not considered that first morning after. Audible weeping, seething but suppressed anger, stoic masks and silent cries for help were manifest. So was the compassionate support for one another and the courage to carry on to support the students.

Instead of recognizing and honoring their grief, I urged them to suppress their pain and take care of our students. The faculty carried on heroically with the students, but had district and school leaders been more sensitive to their needs and allowed time for the teachers to manage their own feelings and support their colleagues, we would have better served our students and the greater community.

Personal Impact

On a personal note, managing my own emotions had its own challenges. Each phone call from the police was crushing and left me breathless and suffocating just thinking about the child’s parents and siblings, not to mention my own children and grandchildren. There were times of what novelist Kurt Vonnegut called “Jupiter gravity” when I could barely shuffle through the day, yet I always had to keep an upbeat presence.

And shortly after each death, I just got angry. Really angry, but not at anyone. I was just mad, mad that I could not save their lives, mad that I shuddered with every train whistle, mad that suicide was so inextricable and terrified another could happen. My outlets were holding family close and hard exercise — mile-long swims, cycling steep grades and even running intervals. These physical activities speeded recovery and helped me lead with more compassion, sensitivity and equanimity.

Putting the proverbial oxygen mask on yourself first is an important lesson in leadership.