Can You Hear Me Now? Key Elements of Effective Communication
No matter your position or role in a school, communication is a key factor in finding success. Sadly, “lack of communication” is often cited as a major weakness in education. Teachers can be frustrated with lack of information from administrators, parents can feel left in the dark by the school, and administrators can often feel blindsided. It’s important to remember that there is no “one size fits all” approach to effective communication. However, our varied experiences have taught us (sometimes the hard way) a few helpful approaches.
Communication should be proactive and transparent.
As our district’s union co-president, I (David) am in a position where I am constantly communicating with our leadership team, staff members, administrators, and board members. If I am not honest and open during our conversations, how can I expect those other parties to be open and honest with me? Closed and dishonest communication would create a divide between us and ultimately lead to ineffective efforts. For example, if a staff member who has been coming to work late on a regular basis has been written up and now asks me to be their union rep for a meeting with the superintendent, I need to effectively communicate with both parties. If I’m not honest with the employee before the meeting, they may have unrealistic expectations of the outcome of the meeting. Likewise, if I'm not honest and open with the superintendent, then that devalues my association and can actually be detrimental to each and every employee within the district. Even in “tough” situations, honesty is always the best policy!
Communication should be varied and personalized.
As with most things in life, we all have preferences. “Differentiated instruction” is now an expected cornerstone of effective schools. Likewise, communication techniques should be varied. As a principal, email communication is probably my (Steven’s) most frequently utilized communication form. However, it can also be the most impersonal and inundating. I’ve learned that careful thought should be given when selecting a medium for communication, depending on my purpose and desired outcome. I have been working to better harness the power of social media as a communication tool in my school community; Instagram has allowed our teachers to communicate the “stories” of their classrooms with parents and other teachers at the same time. Facebook, S’More, and Piktochart are all powerful platforms for sharing reminders and highlights with parents and the community at large. This year, I’ve been using a walkie-talkie style app called “Voxer” to communicate with staff, to send reminders, encouragements, and to give personalized feedback after spending times in classrooms. And few things compare with the power of a personalized phone call or handwritten note. Although personalized communication can be time consuming, the positive ripple effects on the school culture make it well worth the effort!
Communication should build-up rather than tear-down.
One of my (David’s) biggest pet peeves as an educator is a tendency toward complaining. If you're unhappy or don't like something, stand up and speak up, in an appropriate manner. If your principal is not communicating a new initiative well to the staff, have the courtesy to request a meeting, sit down with the principal in private, and address the issue(s) in an appropriate and solution-oriented manner. You don't need to point fingers and play the blame game. Lay out the facts and talk it through. If you're respectful, open, and honest with them, your administrator will likely respect you more for it and will try to work it out with you. Complaining alone never leads to positive resolution!
Communication should be collaborative.
The wisdom found in James 1:19 certainly applies in the educational realm: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” When thinking of communication in schools we often overlook the importance of listening. Failing to recognize that communication should always be a collaborative, active, and two-way process can be detrimental. As a leader, I (Steven) have to remind myself that often, the first step in problem solving is to seek input on challenging situations from staff, parents, and even students. I’ve also learned that, when doing so, it is important that I listen far more than I speak, so that my own voice and opinions don’t dominate the conversation. As David Weinberger says in his book Too Big To Know, “The smartest person in the room is the room itself.”