Successful Systems of Communication for School Teams
by David M. Horton, Ed.D.
Schools, by their very nature, are “people” organizations. Our products are people. We start with 5-year olds and once they’ve moved through our organizations they leave as young adults ready to move into the world of college or career.
Because our business is people, and those in our organizations are people too, we must have systems of communication to keep all parties informed and connected. School leaders must keep all stakeholders in mind as they look at communication. Consider those on the inside of the organization.
Teachers and staff require connection to information in a particular way. Students also require a form and delivery of communication. When we look outside of our organization we see parents and the community at large. There must be a system and routine method of communication for them.
Each group must be connected. Each group has its own preferred methods of communication. It is up to school leaders to connect and engage each group to keep them current, knowledgeable and functional with the needed information about the school and its direction. This must be planned for and there must be systems to make it work quickly and efficiently.
DuFour and Eaker (1998) explain that sustaining change requires communication. They go on to note that one of the key starting points to getting change communicated is for the leader and leadership team to consider first “What questions do we ask?” It doesn’t matter what the school is choosing to focus on the questions asked drive the search for answers. If we are looking to change school climate or improve our reading performance and scores then the questions we seek to answer will be precisely what drives us in particular directions.
Notice that the first step still remains “What do we want to change or improve?” But immediately after that determination comes the questions about that target that the team desires to change or improve.
Asking the right questions is a key leadership function that cannot be skipped or underestimated. Then, communicating to others what your focus is becomes the super critical step so that others know why something is important, what is so important about it and how you plan to put it in action.
Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #1
The leader/leadership team has a passionate commitment to communicating the successful vision of the school and learning to others. (Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet)
First share the “why” - your Vision, Target, and Direction.
The passion and urgency of the school’s vision must be shared. Once there is a belief and excitement about what the school can do for students others have to know about it. They must receive communication about why the school is doing what it’s doing.
Once the ‘why’ is shared then the ‘what’ must be shared.
Bennis & Goldsmith (2003) explain that the leader must not only have a passionate commitment to vision but this passion must extend beyond to be communicated to others. The excitement of where the organization is going must have a particular transmission to each group of stakeholders.
The communications must be constant but not overwhelming or overbearing. Careful monitoring is required to get the communication of the vision out there while at the same time not overstaying one’s welcome by constantly bombarding with information. There must be a balance.
Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personal or Team)
How is the excitement of the school’s vision being shared and communicated with stakeholders?
What systems are in place to deliver effective and varied communications?
How often is the organization reviewing its communication and effectiveness in communicating with stakeholders?
Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #2
The leader/leadership team regularly shares the message about an important initiative seven or eight times. (Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet)
Drive-by communication and trainings don’t work. Telling people one time about a piece of information or a skill they should use on the job is a start. But having the mistaken expectation that having heard something once will suffice for sustained results and change is ridiculous.
People need to hear the message seven or eight times before they can be clear about what is happening and why (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006).
Leaders and leadership teams should map out a school year and be able to mark the calendar with the seven or eight times that key information will be communicated to stakeholders. Not only that but the variety of methods used to communicate should vary as well.
Some people may prefer email or text messaging. Others may use social media. Some may prefer verbal in a meeting. The list goes on. The point is be prepared to share the message over and over and in a variety of media to reach the most people.
Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personal or Team)
Does the leadership team mark the calendar with the number of times a message will be sent about a key school initiative?
How often is the calendar reviewed to be sure communication is regular and routine?
How is the organization monitoring social media and maximizing the variety of methods of reaching stakeholders?
Self-Evaluation / Team Evaluation Prompt #3
The leader regularly practices empathetic listening and honest dialogue with colleagues. (Respond with one of the following: Usually / Sometimes / Not Yet)
Communication is one the most important life-blood practices in an organization. Information is power. The mechanism of transmitting information is crucial to the health and climate of an organization.
As a leader it is critical to possess good skills of communication. Bennis & Goldsmith (2003) note that empathetic listening and honest dialogue are two of the most important leadership skills to improve professional effectiveness. It takes determination and practice to be a good listener and communicator. It would seem that these skills should come easy or naturally but they require practice and attention.
Consider the routine ways in which you communicate with colleagues now.
When was the last time you stopped to consider how you said something rather than what you said?
When was the last time you focused on your skills as a listener not just a talker?
The attention paid to this skill set can make a tremendous difference as to how connected staff feels to the organization and to you personally as a leader.
Also, consider the message delivered. Is it honest? Is the message genuine even if it’s critical feedback and perhaps unpleasant? Be honest and direct yet diplomatic. Treat people with dignity in your communication and you will earn the loyalty of your staff and colleagues.
Reflection and Follow Up Discussion Questions (Personally or Team)
Are you an empathetic and honest communicator? Think of three recent examples.
How could you practice keeping these skills sharp on a daily basis?
How could you work with a critical friend to share feedback on how you are perceived through your communication skills?
Call to Action
Thinking about communication and the systems of communication may not be a thing that regularly makes it to the top of your task list for the programs and initiatives you have in your grade level/subject area, school or district.
But, one thing that we should be ever mindful of is that in our current age of technology and constant access people and stakeholders are interacting with our communication 24 hours a day.
You can’t predict when someone will browse the website, check a social media feed, or look at their emails. And that doesn’t even account for the internal communications in your building or organization. There is a high premium on communicating well, often and in a variety of formats.
Take some time as a team to discuss three avenues of communication you use well now. Why are these strengths for you?
Then, discuss three avenues you could improve in your communication patterns.
How will you know that you have made gains in these areas?
What evidence will you be able to gather?
How can you analyze what works, what could be improved or what could be let go?
What actions can you take to further streamline your areas of focus?
Remember, it is a big part of your success to not only share the great things taking place in your organization by your team, school or district but to share these with stakeholders outside the organization too. Using good communication plans can set a positive culture and perception for years to come.
Ainsworth, L., & Viegut, D. (2006). Common formative assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Bennis, W., & Goldsmith, J. (2003). Learning to lead: A workbook on becoming a leader (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.