Introduction: Why School Communication Matters


A Matter of Urgency

Obstacles are the entry point.    Cyndi Lee

Some years ago, a superintendent of a large, urban school district launched a major initiative to increase the quality of the district’s customer service. Research convinced him that offering excellent customer care throughout the organization would improve employee morale and raise the school division’s approval rating in the community. The superintendent announced his intention and established a small task force to create a set of standards by which customer service efforts could be measured.

Initially, his plan was met with hefty resistance within the organization.

“What does a school have to do with customer service?” employees grumbled. “Our business is education. Our business is teaching students to read and think. Everyone knows we do a good job!”

Mmmmm…Are we sure about that?

With student test scores being held to high, very public, and sometimes arbitrary standards, with school bond proposals failing in many communities and budget fights increasingly bitter, with the media running “gotcha” stories about “lax” school building security, with a growing number of highly organized and vocal parent groups speaking out on behalf of their children, you have to wonder just how effective our messages to the community are.

A Fundamental Leadership Skill

Many leaders in the corporate world now understand that clear, two-way communication is vital to the success of any organization and its leaders. Jim Collins, in his best selling book about making organizations better, Good to Great, writes, “A primary task in taking a company [read: school or school system] from good to great is to create a culture wherein people have a tremendous opportunity to be heard and, ultimately, for the truth to be heard.” (2001, p. 88)

“Communication is fundamental to building relationships and therefore to the ability to lead,” says Jeswald W. Salacuse in his book, Leading Leaders. “Indeed, leadership could not exist without communication.” (2006, p.23)

School leaders have been slower than their colleagues in industry to take a long look at these issues. In the principal’s, the assistant principal’s or the superintendent’s office, we say, there is not a lot of time for planning, and day-to-day issues tend to bleed out and fill available hours. Maybe it’s time to pause and look at the bigger picture. We are educating students, not manufacturing and selling widgets, to be sure, but we have much to learn from our business counterparts.

A Bridge, Not a Buffer

For the most part, institutions—including schools and school divisions—have used public relations (and community relations and media relations and even employee relations) as a means of keeping people out. Leaders send the press release or the employee newsletter with management-filtered information and hope that it will keep the troops happy. Communications becomes the buffer between leadership and the stakeholders.

But it’s just not working. The bond referendum is defeated; the school budget is cut; and the media continues to thrive on “bad news” stories.

There is a better way:

“Think of communication as a bridging activity,” suggests scholar James Grunig (2006, p. 171), “an activity in which [a school or district] builds linkages with stakeholders…to transform and constitute the organization in new ways.”

What if we used our communication to build bridges instead of moats? What if we came to understand what our parents really want and need in order to make our relationships work? What if we could create a reservoir of good will in the community that would carry us over the big bumps when we meet them? What if we could reduce the tensions within the faculties in our buildings and between faculties and other building employees? What if our students actually had a better climate in which to learn? Shouldn’t we pay attention?

Good Communication Is Key to Community Support and Funding

“One of the great ironies of school leadership today,” says Nora Carr, a communication leader in schools and industry, “is that you can do a great job of educating students and communicating with parents, and still miss 78 to 80 percent of the people upon whose support pubic education—and your livelihood—depends.

“That’s because the vast majority of people who pay taxes today in most communities small and large, do not have school-aged children. This means that we have to start paying more attention to school public relations and marketing, or pay the consequences.” (Carr, 2005)

All school systems receive tax funding, but many communities must also pass public bonds and levies to fund operating budgets. Others use bond funding to support their system’s capital improvement programs. Local schools supplement their operating budgets with donations, fundraisers, and business partnerships—all dependent on the good will of the citizens who often do not have school-aged children. These efforts, to be successful, must be fueled by good communication with parents and in the community at large.

Carr calculates that “in most districts, if you spend $105,000 on better communications, you only need to recruit 15 new kindergartners at $7,000 each in per pupil funding to recoup your investment. If those 15 students stay in your district for 12 years, that initial investment in school marketing will yield more than $1 million.”

That seems a relatively small investment for some potentially big returns—even in a small district with a modest budget.

Communication Is Crucial to a Leaders’ Job Security

According to the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), the average tenure of a superintendent in 2007 is less than six years. The Council of Great City Schools reports the average tenure of an urban superintendent to be less than three years. Not very long.

Job security is an issue for principals too. Principals work close to the ground, where the action is. Parents care not so much about big policy issues, but more about what is happening in their child’s school and, most especially, in their child’s classroom. So the credibility of a principal is key to parental satisfaction with school and the school system, and good communication makes a substantial contribution to that credibility.

No leader wants to fail. No superintendent or principal goes to the office in the morning looking to mess up. But—and this may surprise you—what causes a superintendent or principal to lose his or her job, more often than not, is not how she designed the new instructional initiative or how he managed the building renovation. Recent studies show that what brings the leader down is his or her inability to communicate with staff members and the community:

In a California study, the major reason most principals were fired was poor interpersonal communications. (Davis, 1998)

In Tennessee, when superintendents ranked career-threatening skill deficiencies of principals, atop the list was “Works cooperatively with faculty and staff.” (Matthews, 2002)

In yet another study, the mistakes by a principal most often identified by teachers were in human relations and interpersonal communications, specifically, a lack of trust and an uncaring attitude. (Bulach, Boothe, Pickett, 1998)

The National School Public Relations Association conducted surveys and interviews of leading superintendent search firms to discover what qualities and skills were most important in the hiring of a new superintendent and which were lacking in those superintendents who were not successful in their positions. Along with leadership and vision, communication skills were ranked as the most desired by school boards in the hiring of a new superintendent. The “lack of communication and the failure to keep people informed” was the chief factor affecting the failure of superintendent. (Bagin, 2007)

School leaders are not alone. Research across many industries indicates that leaders often fail because of “communicative incompetence.” (Kowalski, Peterson & Fusarelli, 2007)

Kids Are the Chief Reason Why Communication Matters

Students learn better when adults communicate well. The need for good communication in our schools is great because the needs of our students are great. Students matter.

Good communication increases parent involvement in the school. (Henderson, 2002) Many school and family collaborations have demonstrated that parent involvement is a key ingredient in higher student achievement. (Cary, 2006, pp. 6-7.) Good communication between the school and parents—and between the school district and the community—creates a climate of trust and respect in which teachers can teach and students can learn. Good communication builds a team—that team we are always talking about—that team that surrounds and supports a student so that he or she can succeed.

The Engine Oil Light Is Blinking!

Four school stories appeared in the local paper one day last week:

A large school system is facing a $2 million budget cut. In presenting his proposed budget to the school board, the superintendent outlined half the cuts and was quoted as saying that he “hoped” that the county government “will fill the rest of the shortage.”

In a nearby system, students protested loudly when a high school principal offered $30 to any student who would name a perpetrator in a recent cafeteria food fight. “Bribery!” the students charged. District officials said that the practice of offering monetary rewards “happens a couple of times a year.”

In yet another large system in the area, a student was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting as she and a friend walked home from school. The principal labeled community claims that the shooting was gang-related as “hysteria.”

Back in the first system, a teacher and coach was charged with using his school computer to solicit sex with a minor. According to the school district spokesman, the teacher was placed on unpaid administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation. “We take very seriously the welfare of all the students in our schools,” he said.

Ouch! In every one of these communities, the potential for rupture between school and community or between leadership and staff is huge. You have to hope that the lines of communication have been well tended and that the relationships among all the stakeholders are strong.

Every day in this country, we are designing and building new schools—smart schools, green schools, mega schools, community schools. In those buildings, we are constantly reframing how we work and how teach and learn. We are differentiating curriculum; designing collaborative literacy, parallel curriculum and thinking strategies; and creating learning communities. We try to create and sustain excitement about what we are doing—both inside the building and out—by re-organizing the district management, by re-branding our programs, or by adding new and flashy technologies.

What we are not doing is focusing on the ways in which we are communicating with our stakeholders—our employees, our parents, our neighbors, the business owners, our elected officials, the taxpayers, or the reporters who write the stories. We are not paying enough attention to the relationships with those around us—the relationships that provide the long-term, sustained support for public education in our communities.

We send out newsletters. We have a Web site. We are front and center for back-to-school night. But many of the tools in our communication tool kits are outdated. We no longer understand our audiences. We speak in jargon. We take ourselves much too seriously and often convey to parents that we really don’t care about their opinions.

A Call for Excellence

Not just any communication attempt will get the job done. While much of good communications is common sense, the first answer to a communication problem that surfaces is not always the best. It is too easy—especially with the help of a computer and color printer—to dash off a six-panel, two-fold, four-color brochure and consider the job is done. Did anyone ask who the brochure is for or what messages that audience really wants to hear? Did anyone ask who even reads brochures anymore? We make a lot of bad assumptions and waste a lot of time when we try to communicate when we have not listened to our audiences first.

In today’s world, only sustained communication efforts of the highest quality stand any real chance of making a difference. We don’t have the luxury of saying, “Well, I already told the parents once.” We know that that doesn’t work. We also know that important messages must be communicated with attention to their emotional content. People pay far more attention to passion than they do to a list of facts.

We know too that each time we put communication on the back burner (”I’ll get to that tomorrow.”) we risk further eroding our standing with parents and community. We risk our budgets, our test scores, and sometimes our jobs.

A New Paradigm

High quality communication does not occur accidentally. It happens when leaders are thoughtful and intentional about their efforts. It happens when leaders build strong personal relationships with their team and with their stakeholders. High quality communication is both carefully planned and the result of everyday interactions. It is a process—one that has no end. High quality communication rests on a mutual respect built between the school or school system and its various stakeholders. School leaders with good communication skills recognize and serve all the many and diverse audiences in a school community.

The superintendent whom we mentioned at the outset—the one with the customer service bent—persisted in his initiative, despite the naysayers. He communicated clear standards for his employees. Wherever he went within the organization, the superintendent talked about the need for good communication and good service. He provided resources to increase service in places where it was most needed. He evaluated departments on their service. He found ways to reward individual staff members and departments for outstanding service. Within a year, there was a marked change in climate throughout the district.

In the pages that follow, we will look at some of the ways that school leaders can create that kind of effective communication and garner those kinds of successes in their own communities.

We will examine the assumptions that we make about the stakeholders with whom we communicate—assumptions that cause us to make big mistakes in our communication attempts.

We offer a framework within which school leaders can look at the stakeholders they serve and gather information that will help them create strong, resilient relationships with those stakeholders.

We will propose plenty of practical suggestions for communicating in the difficult situations that principals and superintendents face every day.

We will tell stories of how school leaders have done it well. We will look at some of our own bloopers. (The stories that we tell are real, though sometimes we have changed names and details to give cover to the innocent.)

We have worked with principals, assistant principals, and superintendents for a long time. We have spent most of our careers on the front lines. We have worked through difficult parent confrontations and combative meetings over such issues as education for gifted and talented children and special needs children. We have helped principals lead their faculties in creating whole new school plans. We have worked with principals and public safety officials through hurricanes, drug busts, student slayings, faculty arrests, and a host of lock-down situations. We have worked through outbreaks of meningitis and tuberculosis, bomb threats, and even student counterfeit rings. (Young men spending lots of new twenty dollar bills in the school cafeteria. What were they thinking?) And every time we said, “Well, now we’ve seen it all,” there was a new challenge on our desks.

These experiences convinced us long ago that communication is a leadership issue. We believe that building good relationships—one by one—with all school stakeholders is the only way to create the effective and sustainable communication that is the foundation of a great school or school system.

The framework we have hammered out over time looks at leadership through a different lens. It’s based on three assumptions:

The key personal quality of effective leadership is integrity.

The key skill of effective leaders is the ability to motivate cooperation from others.

The key to motivating cooperation from others is high quality communication in everyday interactions and small steps.

In these pages we share the wisdom that we have gained from working with the folks who make education happen for our young people—your colleagues. We believe that by building good relationships every day, a superintendent, school board members, a principal, or school staff members—indeed, any school leader—can create a better environment for teaching and learning and helping students thrive. That, for us, is the bottom line.

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It is imperative that school leaders find motivation and resources to create long-range, comprehensive communication plans for their schools and districts. If they do not, they put their own careers, community support for their schools, and the opportunity to make their schools places where students thrive and learn in jeopardy.