What are the top two factors impacting student learning? The first is teacher quality. But right behind that is school leadership.

In fact, there is a reciprocal relationship between these factors—teacher quality is significantly influenced by school leadership.Teachers are better able to hone their skills in an environment that is trusting and respectful; in a less collegial environment, where leadership is inconsistent or absent, teachers are less likely to grow professionally. Establishing interpersonal trust with teachers requires school leaders to invest in developing and maintaining relationships with teachers through effective communication and supportive behavior.

So, what is effective communication? Merriam-​Webster’s definition of communication is “to transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood.” It is the latter phrase in this definition that is especially critical. While school leaders might work carefully to craft a message, they may have little idea of how accurately this message is received or understood by others. Really, how often do we take time to listen to the feedback that a message engenders? Usually the principal delivers a message and it is up to the teachers to unravel it. Yet, it is in this interaction (delivering a message and eliciting reactions and responses) that meaningful communication takes place. In other words, a principal needs to be sensitive to the “ripple effect” of the message that’s delivered.

This article presents three scenarios that demonstrate the importance of effective principal communication. Take time to think: Have you found yourself in similar situations? How might you have crafted and delivered a message that would have been more positively received?

Scenario #1: Introducing the iPad 

In this example, a principal informed her teaching staff that iPads were to be used in the classroom as part of a two-year initiative. Believe it or not, this simple message caused consternation among teachers. Many veteran teachers did not know how to integrate technology into their lessons, and others felt they had not been consulted about the initiative, leaving them feeling undervalued. Some teachers were nervous because they thought they might be evaluated on how the iPads affected student performance. 

A group of teachers decided to meet with the principal to express how her message had been received. When the principal heard how uneasy the teachers felt, she realized that she had not clearly communicated the entire process of the iPad initiative. She had failed to mention that the first year would be a year of exploration, giving them time to integrate the iPads into their teaching and sharing their experiences. Nor had she explained that teachers would be allowed to use their devices at their own comfort level in the first year, and that their evaluations would not be based upon the use of the iPads.

Although in her mind the principal knew how the iPad process would be rolled out, she lost sight of the importance of explaining the details to teachers, leaving them feeling excluded. This lack of detailed communication had caused a ripple effect among teachers, increasing their anxiety and causing a change in the school climate. Fortunately, a group of teachers engaged the principal in a dialogue to better understand the new initiative, allaying misgivings and avoiding a negative impact on teaching and learning. 

Scenario #2: Integrating Common Core

In this example, a principal made a unilateral decision to collect lesson plans from teachers once a week to verify that the Common Core State Standards were being implemented. The principal informed teachers of this change at the end of a faculty meeting, announcing, “Integrating the Common Core State Standards is vital for our students to score well on the state-mandated tests. Starting next week, I am going to collect your lesson plans to ensure you have integrated the standards into your teaching.”

As soon as the meeting ended, teachers gathered in the parking lot to address the principal’s announcement. Many were angry. Why didn’t he just ask us how we were using the standards, rather than mandating his weekly collection of our lesson plans? Doesn’t he trust us? Why didn’t he just conduct some walkthroughs to see what we are doing? Why did he wait to make this announcement when the meeting was over?

In this scenario, it seems that the principal wanted to avoid controversy, so he made the announcement at the conclusion of the meeting. His action caused the teachers to lose trust. They felt that he did not respect their professionalism since he did not visit their classes to see how the standards were being taught. And he never asked them how they would respond to him checking their lesson plans. Rather than eliciting feedback in the moment, this principal would not learn of this failure to communicate until he received a formal complaint at the following faculty meeting.

Scenario #3: Adding an Advisory Program

In this example, a principal was told by the superintendent to add an advisory program into the school day. Instead of calling the teachers together to explain the superintendent’s mandate, the principal sent a memo explaining that the district had purchased a commercial advisory program, and that in the upcoming school year, each teacher would be assigned seven to 10 advisees whom they would see during an extended homeroom period.

The teachers were furious. They wondered how much time would be deducted from other subjects if homeroom were extended. Plus, teachers thought about other ramifications of an advisory program. How would they be trained to become advisers? What if they did not want to be advisers? How did the district know which commercial program would best meet the needs of their students? What was the rationale for the advisory program?

The climate in the school became hostile, and this radiated to staff, students, and even parents. Finally, a self-appointed group of faculty met with the principal and explained how teachers had reacted to the memo. The principal explained that she had no choice about implementing an advisory program, because the superintendent had demanded it. She explained that even she had no say in what type of advisory program would be selected. She shared that she, too, was concerned about losing time in all of the subject areas.

It became clear that what had been missing from the memo was the whole context of the directive. The team of teachers recommended that the principal present the big picture to the teachers in an open forum where together they could develop a response to the directive that reflected the culture of the school. An initial two-way conversation—face-to-face instead of a written memo—could have alleviated much of the anxiety and mistrust toward the principal in this case.

Communication problems in schools have a negative impact on student achievement, faculty relationships, school culture, teaching, and learning. In a recent ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) poll, more than 43 percent of respondents indicated that one of the most important things a teacher needs from a principal is an opportunity for input and discussion before a final decision is made.

Dynamic communication interactions are essential as school leaders work to establish a shared vision for a school community. To create a shared vision, leaders need to balance delivering messages with receiving ideas, suggestions, and feedback from the wider community. Honesty and trust can emerge only after the school leader has attended to building relationships with teachers, staff, students, parents, and the community at large. When a leader has given care and consideration to providing thoughtful communication over time, it is far more likely that the ripple effects of a message will be carried along a positive wavelength.

Phyllis Gimbel, EdD, is a professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA. 

Lenesa Leana formerly served as head of school at Belmont Day School in Belmont, MA.

Peter Gow is executive director of The Independent Curriculum Group in Dedham, MA.