Communicating About School Change
I have been thinking about marketing a lot these days. We want to communicate with stakeholders about school change projects but the language can be a huge barrier and can increase fear because it is so unfamiliar. I have been playing around with messaging and documents. I have been focusing on communication methods. But, I think I have been focusing on the wrong things. The starting point for communicating complex ideas is relationships. The standard ways that we look for stakeholder involvement, like community meetings, don’t foster relationships by design.
Communication Methods that Foster Relationships
Last week, I attended eighth grade conferences at our middle school in order to connect with incoming ninth graders and their parents and begin to provide them with information about proficiency-based learning. One parent was particularly contentious about some of the changes and I made a big mistake. While I was attempting to answer her questions, I reflected that I began trying to convince her that we were doing the right thing. What I should have been doing was listening. I should have been hearing what was important to her about traditional methods of teaching and learning? Why were grades so important to her? Because I had no initial relationship with this parent, my attempts to be convincing could never have gone anywhere. In order to backtrack, I may try another method that I use to build trust; I may have to make a personal phone call.
As a special educator for many years, I adopted a routine of calling parents at the beginning of the year, generally before school even started. I would call to introduce myself and make sure there were no scheduling questions. I would ask how the summer had been and provide my contact information. The reason I adopted this routine was because I found that many times my first contact with parents was when something went wrong and I wanted to get ahead of that. It made all the difference in the world when I did have to make that call. A personal call, whether it be an invitation, a check in or for another purpose, can make a big difference. We are planning an event next month and perhaps a personal invite via phone might increase attendance.
Being authentic and honest develops trust. This trust is critical to the development of relationships. When I considered what we do as a school to develop trust, the one thing that stood out was inviting people in. When we invite people into our school, it communicates transparency. It communicates that we stand behind what we are doing. This develops trust. Exhibitions of learning, no matter what form they take, are opportunities for developing trust. School events are not the only way to invite people in. In elementary schools, it is common to have parent volunteers and field trip chaperones.
Teachers and schools should be making decisions based on the fact that they care about kids. If stakeholders know that this is why we are making certain decisions, even if they are skeptical, there will be a level of trust that will enable us to try innovative ideas. What are some other concrete things we can do to build relationships?