The belief by parents that teachers care deeply about their children is a key factor in creating confidence in schools. Similarly, communicating effectively with students, teachers, parents, and community members can help principals engender confidence in their schools. Proactive, abundant, and clear communication by principals demonstrates respect for stakeholders. These 10 take-charge actions will help principals to generate support for their schools and respect for themselves at the same time.
#1: Proactively Communicate With External and Internal Stakeholders
Post important information about issues on the school’s website well in advance—i.e., before people need it or ask for it. Keep your website accurate and current. Make it easy for people to find info that is important to them. Include a link to state test scores. Be sure to send information in the languages of parents who don’t speak English. Broadcast info to parents via the parent mass communication system. Provide a link to the syllabi for courses, including the plans for grading. Hold regular meetings with students to understand and respond to their concerns.
#2: Educate the Community About Academic Programs
Hold parent night events to educate parents about graduation requirements or to inform parents about math or reading programs, state test requirements, etc. Hold academic showcase events such as a science fair, music concerts, Honor Society induction ceremonies, multicultural nights, etc. Reach out to parents who might be reluctant to attend school events through home visits, emails, phone calls, and face-to-face parent-teacher conferences.
#3: Involve People in Issues That Affect Them Directly
If people don’t understand the rationale for decisions, they are unlikely to support them. However, if your internal and external constituencies are involved in crafting solutions to the issues that affect them, they are likely to both understand and support the actions taken. Such involvement communicates respect for those affected by decisions, and it secondarily builds support for the school leaders who structured the involvement. Oftentimes, the process is as important as the product.
#4: Help Parents Help Their Children
Principals are wise to remember that they educate the whole child, and that they are partners with parents in helping students be successful. Offer workshops that are of interest to parents on topics such as how to help children with homework; bullying/cyberbullying, drug and alcohol use, and date-rape prevention; the college admissions process; how to apply for financial aid, etc. Such programs can help them to be more effective parents while communicating that the school cares about them and their children. Hold a special parent night just for the parents of English-language learners. Having ESL students act as translators will increase attendance.
#5: Be a Continual Source of Information
Promote the school and its programs often. Write columns in the local newspaper. Send text messages and tweets about current issues and other important information. Educate community members about the good things happening at your school. If you are not already invited, offer to be an occasional speaker for the Rotary Club, PTA, or Booster Club. Be an honest, accurate friend to the media.
#6: Show Up
Parents and students typically want you to be vitally interested in whatever they are interested in. Even though you are very busy, demonstrate your interest in activities simply by showing up at ball games, concerts, open houses, and academic events. Walk through the gym or the practice field, or breeze by play practice after school and chat with students, coaches, or advisers to communicate that you are interested in them while simultaneously giving yourself an opportunity to hear their concerns. Talk with and listen to students, parents, and community members. If something is on people’s minds, they will probably tell you. As you are addressing their concerns, you simultaneously demonstrate respect for them.
#7: Create Opportunities for Two-Way Communication
Hold “conversations with administrators” or similar events where parents can ask you and other school leaders questions. Consider different formats, such as Saturday morning breakfasts with the principal, to create opportunities for two-way communication. Start a “key communicators organization” to provide an opportunity for representatives from civic groups to meet with building-level administrators on a regular basis. Hold regular meetings with leaders from the teaching, administrative, and support staff.
#8: Communicate With Critics
While it may be tempting, and perhaps more comfortable, to avoid critics, it is generally not productive. As mentioned earlier, people will rarely support something they don’t understand. Invite your critics to meet with you and address their concerns in a respectful, nonjudgmental manner. Answer tough questions. Demonstrate active listening skills with people who are upset. Take notes when appropriate. Summarize the person’s concerns by reading your notes back or restating the concern before proposing a solution. Your goal in such a situation is to communicate accurately while preserving or enhancing a relationship—the goal is not to win a battle.
#9: Communicate Clearly in Crisis Situations
Parents are always concerned about their children’s safety. In crisis situations, communicate abundantly and redundantly about the issue, and share the steps you took (and will take) to keep kids and school personnel safe. Get help if needed. The local police can advise you about safety protocols. I have had to ask for help from the county health department when students had swine flu or bacterial meningitis. Accurate advice from experts helped to allay concerns. Write and publicize a press release so people know the facts.
#10: Be Genuine and Transparent
Duplicity is quickly discovered and disdained. Continually communicate in a positive, friendly way—focus on students and your efforts to improve your school district. Keep an ever-present mindset of customer service. Your actions greatly influence the culture of communication in your school district—your employees will follow your lead.
John Gratto is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA.