Perception is Reality

Amazing things happen in every school.


Each day, support staff, teachers, and administrators pour their energy into doing what is best for kids.


As schools continue to do more with less, educators rise to the challenge to ensure students receive the education, guidance, and support needed for success.


Unfortunately, most of what happens inside schools goes no further than classroom walls. In a world with countless distractions, schools struggle to build community awareness of the happenings within their buildings.


Whereas some schools do a great job of sharing their story, many have struggled to adjust to the ever-changing communication landscape. But rather than take ownership of their poor communication, many school leaders are quick to blame everyone but themselves:


“We sent a letter home!”

“Why don’t they look at the website?”

“They don’t read their email.”

“It’s posted on Facebook...”

“Students don’t listen.”

“Parents don’t care.”


School leaders must understand that a school’s image, reputation, and credibility depend on clear, consistent communication. Whereas previous generations naturally trusted the educational system, today’s schools are no longer given the benefit of the doubt. When schools neglect communication, the community fills in the gaps with their own (often negative) opinions and conclusions with the little information they have.


In the 1980’s, political consultant Lee Atwater began using the phrase “perception is reality.” Who could have guessed that 40 years later those words would define American schools.


Old Lady. Every. Single. Time.

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Before we dig into universal communication processes, let’s take a moment to discuss communication during these “unprecedented times.” Certainly, these last few years have been anything but normal for school leaders. COVID, masks, vaccines … schools have been caught in the crossfire of many cultural issues.


Scroll through social media or look at the front page of the local newspaper and it’s hard not to notice headlines such as “Teacher Morale Hits New Low Amidst Pandemic” and “School Board Meeting Erupts Over Mask Mandate.” As often as these stories appear, one would assume chaos and confusion are unavoidable.


However, when the layers are peeled back to expose the root cause of school struggles, it isn’t political pressures or polarizing parents. Rather, schools struggle because they ignore best practices in organizational communication.


Consider the districts in your region that have experienced staff and community backlash. Have those leaders followed these fundamental practices?


Collaboration: Do leaders ask staff what is feasible in their setting?

Buy-In: Do leaders generate support prior to making decisions?

Transparency: Do leaders explain the decision-making process?

No Surprises: Do leaders give staff and parents time to prepare?

Unselfish: Do leaders put their egos aside when making decisions?


Certainly, some issues are unavoidable. Some districts have dysfunctional school boards with political agendas, while others have crazy parent groups who oppose every district decision.


However, school leaders do themselves no favors when they ignore the basic rules of effective communication.


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School leaders at every level must prioritize clear, timely, and transparent communication. From district superintendents to building principals to teacher leaders, sustained systemic success requires effective communication.


Leaders who openly share information empower staff. When information funnels up and down an organization in a free-flowing manner, all employees feel like a part of the team. In times when employees are difficult to find, communication is crucial for recruitment, engagement, and retainment.


External communication also plays a significant role in school success, meaning leaders must implement systems for sharing information with parents and the community.


“What impact does public perception have on school success?” you may wonder. “Does it really matter?"


A direct correlation exists between school communication and community trust. The better a school communicates with the public, the more the public trusts the school.


Think of this relationship like a bank account. With each message, schools make tiny deposits of trust that accumulate over time. Building up this bank account is crucial when adversity strikes a school district. Schools that stockpile social capital build immunity to public attacks, whereas schools with depleted reserves become vulnerable to community backlash.


Listen folks: communication is making and breaking schools right now. Yet very few school districts have systems for effectively communicating with stakeholders.


What are the common barriers to effective communication? Here are five common responses from school leaders:


“Our communication is just fine!” When questioned about their communication, many school leaders stubbornly insist no changes are needed. Unfortunately, recent studies signal a significant disconnect between leaders’ perceptions of communication and the reality of communication in the eyes of staff and parents.


“It’s just public opinion – who cares!” In addition to building trust, school leaders must understand the data supporting parent engagement. Parents who actively engage in the school environment have children who are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, better social skills, and better behavior … regardless of family income or background.


“We have volunteers run our external communications.” Schools are notorious for asking volunteers to manage the school website and social media pages. For years, I pleaded with the “higher ups” to give these individuals money for their time. Each time I was told no. No wonder our communication sucked. The average school district runs a $50 million dollar budget. Spend a few dollars on communication.


“We have kids run our external communications.” Along the same lines of “let’s find volunteers” is the “let’s have kids do it” line. Don’t get me wrong, I love empowering students and giving them ownership of projects. However, school leaders who are serious about creating effective systems of communication understand this responsibility cannot be delegated to the school’s digital media or journalism class.

“We don't have money for a communication director.” Many larger school districts have wisened up and hired a skilled professional/team of professionals to manage communications. But what about smaller school districts? As a high school principal and a superintendent, I formed a communications team to ensure our story was told. My current district has eleven (!!) communications team members. Some staff are given stipends, while others have communicative roles woven into their job responsibilities. Total cost to the district? Roughly $10,000 per year.


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In Culturize, Jimmy Casas says the following:


“Many of the issues schools face today are deeply embedded in how people communicate, neglect to communicate in a timely fashion, or fail to communicate all together. Most of the negativity, harsh feelings, and unnecessary work that is endured in schools can be tied back to poor communication.”


Consider the current issues within your school or districts. Are these problems the result of a "never-seen-before crisis?" Or, are these problems the consequence of poor communication?


In a time when schools face intense pressure, school leaders must stop making excuses and develop systems for effectively sharing their story.

 

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