Donovan Group Insights

Article: Communicating in a Time of Change

The following article is exclusive to readers of the Grundmeyer Leader Services newsletter. 

The first months of the calendar year have always been a busy time for public schools. This was true long before the global pandemic and the political turbulence many school leaders have been experiencing as of late. Beyond those things, all of the post-holiday business of our work causes ample stress this time of the year.

Consider where we are now. The needs of our students and staff are constantly evolving as we deal with the latest COVID-19 variant and we hopefully emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public schools have been at the center of some of the most hotly debated national political issues. While community members rarely interact with their U.S. senators, they can more easily engage their locally elected school boards.

To be sure, public schools have always been microcosms of the larger political world. We see this clearly today.

For some of you, your day-to-day work lives are likely very similar to your pre-COVID work. But for others, the pandemic and new political battles have re-shaped your professional lives. In either case, the question we receive often is: How should we engage our stakeholders in this time of change?

Below are four key concepts to keep in mind as you work through some of the more difficult days of the school year.

Fill the Vacuum
In the aftermath of something big taking place in your school or district, such as COVID-19 mitigation or some kind of crisis, there’s often a tendency to not communicate. Instead, you may want to let the dust settle and to wait things out. Generally, that is not a good option.

We often find that, in the absence of news from a school when something big is happening, the information vacuum created with a lack of communication gets filled with bad news — often in the form of gossip or rumors. There’s a need to fill the vacuum and continue communicating, even when there is a desire to let things calm down first.

During these times, it’s important to continue telling your good news stories and sharing your points of pride. Be ready to talk about all the great things happening in your school.

On your way to school in the morning, think about something you are especially proud of in your school. Perhaps it’s something you see while visiting a classroom, a compliment from a parent or staff project. Whatever it is, commit to telling that story during your day. Use it to promote the vision and promise of your school.

There are times when engaging parents and others about the work of a school may seem especially difficult because of the political differences built into so much of what we do. When in doubt, consider the three Ps of policy, process and procedure. Remember that we can always engage parents and others in the work of our schools by encouraging them to be part of processes, to learn about policies that impact the work of schools and to lean in on the procedures that frame our work.

Communicate Internally First
When you fill the vacuum, be sure to communicate with staff first. Good school communication happens from the inside out and begins by communicating with your school colleagues first. These times are difficult on your staff, so try to bring some positive energy by complimenting work well done, expressing positivity about the future and thinking creatively about how to keep your school colleagues engaged and positive.

However many staff people you have is how many spokespeople are in your school. Whenever you communicate, including to parents, consider sending the same message to staff first as a way to help ensure your messages stick.

Try to Break Through
We are living through a very noisy time. By “noise,” I am referring to all the COVID-19 and political news that reaches us every day through the traditional news media, social media and our daily interactions with people. There’s a lot going on in the world right now.

Communicating about our schools and trying to get our point across means we have to work even harder to ensure our messages land. To do this, we need to communicate smarter.

In this case, smart means looking for communications tools that break through the noise. We are increasingly finding that video works for stakeholders of all ages. These do not need to be professionally produced videos, but rather brief clips you can take yourself from your cell phone.

Perhaps it is you speaking to the camera about something cool you just saw in your school. Or, it could be a video of a student engaged in a really great learning activity or something else that is compelling and helps tell your school’s story.

Remember to keep the video short, avoid filming students who cannot be photographed and have some fun with it. When possible, try to avoid political or other topics that will draw strong, negative comments from some in the community.

Seek Two-Way Communication
The last suggestion is to seek new ways to get stakeholders to engage. This means creating two-way communication opportunities. In all cases, we want to avoid what we call push-only communications in which we merely send information directly to stakeholders. We must also look for ways to receive their input.

Although social media is a great tool for two-way communication, and some schools and districts do this very well, it can get out of hand. Other options include in-person and virtual open houses, “coffee with the principal” meetings, surveys and informal focus groups about key issues.

Surveys, in particular, work well when gauging feedback about hot topics among parents and staff. Remember, of course, to only ask about things you can positively change. Only ask a question if you are interested in the feedback you’ll receive. Just like with in-person conversations, be authentic in all of your engagement and use the results in your decision making.

Despite the many challenges, look for opportunities to more fully engage your communities by filling the communications vacuum, communicating internally first, looking for new ways to break through and creating authentic two-way communications.

One last thing. As we enter the new year, we want to thank you for dedicating your knowledge, skills, time and heart to the betterment of kids. These are tough times, but you are making a difference. Thank you. Best wishes for the new year!

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