Amazing things happen in schools every day.
Each building is full of support staff, teachers, and administrators who pour energy into the students they serve.
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 full of distractions vying for the public's attention, 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 messaging, many 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.”
Administrators 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.
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. Mask mandates, book bans, bathroom access, litter boxes … schools have been caught in the crossfire of many cultural issues.
Scroll through social media or flip through the local newspaper and it’s hard not to notice headlines such as “School Board Meeting Erupts Over Mask Mandate” and “Teachers Threaten Resignation Over Banned Books.” As often as these stories appear, one would assume chaos and confusion are unavoidable.
However, further investigation reveals that upset parents and angry teachers are rarely the root cause of school issues. Instead, many districts are guilty of creating their own crises 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.
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 messaging.
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 the community.
“Who cares what the community thinks?” some leaders argue. “I could care less about public perception!”
Unfortunately, this old-school mentality limits a school leader’s influence.
A direct correlation exists between school communication and public trust. The better a school communicates with the public, the more the public trusts the school. And the more the public trusts the school, the more likely the public is willing to forgive when mistakes are made.
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 district. Schools that stockpile social capital build immunity to public attacks, whereas schools with depleted reserves become vulnerable to community backlash.
Whereas communication can make or break a school, few districts develop systems for effective stakeholder communication. Why does this happen? Here are five common school leader excuses:
“Our communication is just fine.” When questioned about their messaging, many school leaders stubbornly insist no changes are needed. Unfortunately, recent studies signal a significant disconnect between leaders’ perceptions of communication and the levels of communication stakeholders experience.
“Communication doesn’t impact student achievement.” Wrong. Clear communication leads to parent engagement, and parent engagement impacts student outcomes. Children whose parents are actively engaged in the school environment are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, better attendance, better social skills, and better behavior … regardless of family income or background.
“Volunteers run our external communications.” Schools are notorious for asking employees to volunteer their time to manage the school website and social media pages. As an assistant principal I pleaded with the “higher ups” to pay these individuals, but each time I was told no. No wonder our communication sucked. The average school district runs a $50 million dollar budget … why not 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.” Most large school districts have the capacity to hire a communications director or communications team to handle messaging. But what about smaller 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.
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 district. Are these problems the result of an “unexpected crisis?" Or, are these problems the result of poor communication?
In a time when schools face intense scrutiny, school leaders must stop with the excuses and develop systems to effectively share their story.
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