Donovan Group Insights

The Art of Graceful Communication in Times of Change

Schools are bound to change over time. Sometimes you can see change coming, and other times it may catch you by surprise. Either way, school leaders should have a plan in place for addressing that change with the public. As with any situation, effective communication is your ticket to successfully navigating times of change.

As the world changes, so does your school

No school exists in a bubble. They’re all affected by the political, social and economical shifts happening in the world. State officials could pass laws that affect school curriculum, the way educators teach or how students go about their day-to-day lives. Social movements might call for school policy reform to boost inclusivity. Federal funding might decrease, which would affect student programs and lead school boards to reassess their budgets.

Change is always on the horizon. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Don’t wait until the change is right in front of you. Get into the habit of anticipating change and planning how your school will address it. Stay informed about upcoming elections and what they could mean for your school. Tune into public opinions about recent social issues, and examine how these social issues are present in the lives of students. Start to plan how your school can weather potential reduced funding by adjusting the budget accordingly.

School leaders need to be prepared for change. When you establish a plan, stakeholders will be more confident in your school, and change will go over more smoothly.

Fear is nothing to be afraid of

Change can bring up a lot of different emotions. In addition to anticipating change, you also have to anticipate how people will react to that change. Change can make some people happy or excited, but more often than not, it makes people angry, fearful and nervous. Rarely does change give every single person everything they want. Some people are bound to be upset, even if you view the change as a positive thing for your school.

Don’t be afraid of upsetting stakeholders. It’s going to happen, and it’s completely normal! In an effort to appease stakeholders, some school leaders will make the change sound better than it actually is or intentionally leave out certain details to help soften the blow. Accept that it’s impossible to make everyone happy, and tell the people what they need to hear. Honesty and transparency will serve your school well in the long run.

That said, school leaders should still do what they can to help stakeholders feel at ease. One approach that helps is maintaining a calm, cool image while reassuring people that your school has a plan to navigate the changes. Showing strength and confidence gives stakeholders permission to feel less worried about the situation. Once they see their school leaders aren’t afraid, stakeholders will naturally begin to feel less afraid themselves.

Communication is key to navigating change

Above all else, consistent and effective communication will help stakeholders adjust to any changes at school. Change can make people nervous because they don’t entirely know what to expect, nor do they entirely know how these changes will affect their lives. You have to show stakeholders that you’re here to answer questions, address concerns and assist them every step of the way. That requires communicating early and often.

School leaders need to communicate that these changes are happening. That way, they can retain control over the school’s narrative, as well as the school’s image in the eyes of the public. Chances are, you and your fellow school leaders aren’t the only ones who know when change is coming down the pipeline. Stakeholders who stay informed about elections, state laws and hot-button topics know when change is coming, but they don’t fully understand how it will affect schools, or how schools plan to address it. Be the first to speak about change to reduce the spread of misinformation.

Communicating frequently also ensures people are getting all the information they need. Stakeholders need to be in the loop, so they can feel better about the changes coming their way. Keeping stakeholders informed can also put their minds at ease. Rather than fearing the unknown, stakeholders can head into the future with confidence because they have a better understanding of what the change will look like. Even if they don’t like that change, they can at least take solace in knowing your school will guide them step by step.

Tips on how to communicate gracefully

In times of change, communication requires careful thought and consideration. You have to approach the topic knowing that some people will be angry or nervous. You also have to be aware that stakeholders will look to your school for guidance, as change can be a difficult and confusing time for many. Lead with transparency and compassion, and your school community will be able to get through these changes together.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you speak to the public:

  • Communicate as soon as you can: School leaders should address changes with their community as soon as they have all the necessary information to do so. As mentioned earlier, timely communication helps you control the narrative and reduce the spread of misinformation. People will learn about the change eventually, so it’s best they hear it from you, a reliable and trustworthy source. Don’t sit on information for too long. The sooner people find out, the better.
  • Be transparent (but don’t overshare): Many school leaders sugarcoat change in an effort to ruffle as few feathers as possible. However, being honest is what’s best for your stakeholders. Honesty ensures people have the information they need to prepare for the future. Plus, people are more likely to trust transparent leaders. Just remember that not all details are meant to be shared, either because they’re irrelevant to stakeholders or contain sensitive information that’s not appropriate for the public eye.
  • Listen when the people speak: During change, it’s important to give stakeholders room to voice their thoughts, opinions and concerns. Some people will have a lot to say, and giving them a platform on which to speak can help put some of their concerns to rest. Be sure to listen with a sympathetic ear and point to solutions wherever possible.
  • Share your plans for handling the change: Stakeholders don’t just want to know what change is headed their way. They want to know what your school is doing to make the change go as smoothly as possible. Share how your school plans to adjust to these changes and where stakeholders can find support if necessary. Don’t communicate the plan only once—communicate it multiple times, across multiple channels. Change is an ongoing process, so consistently remind stakeholders you’re here to help.

Reassess your school’s communication protocols

Is change in store for your school? If it is, start planning how you will address that change with your school community. Reflect on what went well last time, and what didn’t go so well. Every wave of change is a fresh opportunity to get better at communicating with stakeholders. The big takeaways are these: be transparent, stay compassionate and communicate often. People will adjust to the change soon enough!

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