Finding Stability in Turbulent Times
As we settle into a new school year, we can be forgiven if we feel that this year differs from previous ones. The pandemic and charged political atmosphere mean that in many of our school district communities, there is general unease.
This turbulence, as I call it, is perhaps no surprise. While school district boardrooms have long been where large political issues play out, we also know that staff members who gave so much of themselves during the pandemic are tired. Board members, many elected well before the pandemic, got more than they bargained for, as they could not have expected the stress of the COVID-19 era. The coarsening of local politics has resulted in angry exchanges in many boardrooms, and despite the heroic efforts of staff members to meet the basic and educational needs of our most vulnerable students, the pandemic laid bare the needs of our neediest. To make matters even worse, the mid-term elections are just around the corner, and many Wisconsin school boards have voted to place referendum questions on the fall ballot.
So, what does this mean for us as professional communicators?
First, it is important for us to have perspective. The simple fact is that the parents of students currently enrolled in public schools like them.
According to Gallup poll from 2021, “73 percent of parents of school-aged children say they are satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving.” The numbers change, however, when you look at the all-respondent group.
Overall, considering parents and non-parents together, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools. The takeaway is that those closest to our public schools, who know them best, like them. Those with little connection to their local schools often do not. These numbers reflect a long, similar trend.
That’s why we can be confident that what has worked in the past will work now. Here are tips to help you and your district find stability during these turbulent times.
1) Always Seek the High Ground
In everything they do, educational leaders, such as school communications pros, must seek to be the most professional, reasonable, and thoughtful people in the room. We must understand that our ethics, professionalism, and values are superpowers. Even in tough times—especially in tough times—we must always take the high ground in everything we do.
2) Be Principled
Part of seeking the high ground is to be principled. That means focusing on honesty, transparency, and forthrightness. It also means understanding our responsibility to provide stakeholders—including staff, students, parents, other community residents, and area businesses—information about the outstanding value that public schools provide.
3) Protect Children
We must understand that our first and most important responsibility is to protect children. Being in public education means that we are in the child advocacy business. Our jobs as school communications professionals differ from communicators in other fields in that we must also consider how what we communicate on behalf of a school district will impact students, including our most vulnerable students.
4) Explaining the “Why”
Leading requires providing a clear path forward to anticipate and address challenges with a commitment to achieving an objective. This means that while our communication must include the what, how, and when, we really need to lean into why.
5) Seek Greater Engagement
In most of our communities, 80% to 85% of the school community does not have a natural connection to local public schools because they do not currently have children in the schools. We must always remember that our school community includes more than just parents. Work hard to connect with our more difficult-to-reach community members, including seniors and younger adults.
6) Know the 3Ps
We may find ourselves responding to angry parents or the media in these challenging times about politically fraught topics. When doing so, lean into the “3Ps”: policy, process, and procedure. While we cannot share information about specific students or, in some cases, specific situations, we can often discuss the district’s policies, processes, and procedures. The 3Ps are always our safe harbor.
As we start a new year, know that your value to your district and community is likely more important than ever before. Lean into the opportunities, and have a great school year.