Sharks, Squirrels or Butterflies: Shared Language for Emergencies

Jun 3, 2016

Stop Before You Spin can be a really, really hard move to pull off, especially if everyone around you holds differing opinions about what constitutes an emergency! We need a system here, people, and boy, oh, boy, am I excited to share my most recent discovery with you. Diana F., a school leader in Philadelphia, recently introduced a common language for emergencies on her team with HUMOR.

In her words: “A few years ago, I managed someone who saw every problem or surprising obstacle as an urgent day-stopping issue. It didn’t take long to realize that he needed to develop skills in categorizing levels of emergency so that he could a) prioritize his time better and b) handle more on his own instead of coming to us. We developed a code with him that became a fun way to build his skills: Every time a problem came up, we needed him to norm the problem with us so that he knew how to move forward. The language we used was: butterfly attack, squirrel attack, and shark attack.”

As for the meaning of these categories…

Butterfly Attacks: Small annoyances that could and SHOULD be handled on one’s own. For example, a teacher who needs to cancel an observation for testing.

Squirrel Attacks: Mid-level problems that require thought partnering, but ultimately independent action. These were also items that managers should know about in case they became larger issues later. For example, a teacher who is struggling with behavior management and needs more intense coaching.

Shark Attacks: Urgent issues that necessitate immediate communication and problem solving with a manager. For example, student safety concerns.

As for the results, Diana reported,

It took a week or two of norming and skill-building, but once we got it down, it freed up a lot of time that had been taken up by previously ‘urgent’ situations. Not only that, it had the added benefit of humor!

Possible team meeting or PD alert! Do you and your team need to have a Shark, Squirrel and Butterfly conversation?

PS This strategy has also worked well with my own six-year-old and her occasional shark-like reactions to butterfly situations, e.g. the wrong socks or waffle shapes.