Communication for School Leaders: Supporting Your
Community During This Time of Uncertainty
This is a stressful time for all of us. There is so much uncertainty in our world right now, and things are changing on a daily, if not hourly, basis. As the leader of your school community people look to you for guidance. Teachers are missing their students and are worried about their students’ needs being met. At the same time, parents are trying to balance the needs of their families, their own work—if they are fortunate enough to retain employment themselves—and the uncertainty that lies ahead. Parents are looking to you not just for answers but as a source of connection during this unprecedented time in all of our lives.
As leaders strive to navigate these uncharted waters, they must take a step back to reflect and draw on what we already know about human nature. Research on the brain shows us that a sense of belonging is innate in all of us. Dr. Britt Andreatta’s “survive, belong, become” construct provides a useful way to think about this. Dr. Andreatta’s research shows how each person is hardwired to seek belonging, given its close relationship to our need to survive, and both a sense of belonging and survival are tied with our need to learn and grow (become). In education, we often reference addressing “Maslow before Bloom” but then overlook this innate need to belong along the way. Connection and belonging are core to our survival as human beings.
What Can You Do To Support and Sustain Belonging in Your School Community?
Familiarity is key, and it is what we are drawn toward in times like these. We want to see and talk to those people that we know and trust. We thrive on routines and reliable constants. Focusing on communication structures that will sustain and reinforce a sense of belonging across distances will help all of the school community. As we think about communication structures it is important to think about our entire school community, including teachers, staff, students, and parents. Communication with these groups is always important, but is especially vital in time of crisis.
Keep in mind, this is a marathon, not a sprint. As you begin to set up communication channels, this structure will help ensure that communication flows effectively between all groups. This structure will be clear enough to avoid confusion and flexible enough to adapt to the rapidly changing context and demands of the crisis. This is easier said than done, of course, and we have broken down the structure into a three-pronged approach for communication with tangible examples for each part of your community.
Three-pronged approach to setting up effective communication:
- Community to school
- Community to each other
- School to community
Examining each group and its greatest needs will allow you to minimize gaps in your communication process. So let's look at how you can apply this approach for your school.
As we look at each of these structures we need to first consider how we would communicate with each group under normal circumstances (when we have the option to be face-to-face). After considering these normal communication structures and processes, we then can prioritize those structures that are most important to maintain, determine whether we need any new structures, and figure out how we can recreate or approximate these communication priorities in our new remote-learning world. Through our engagement with schools across the United States, we have encountered many examples of effective structures. Thinking through the communication structures with examples can be a helpful way to develop a plan for your own communications as a school.
Communication Structures for Teachers and Staff
Your staff has a lot of needs right now and establishing communication structures for them will be key as they navigate this uncharted territory.
Every teacher will have different needs during this time of change. As individuals, your teachers will experience varying levels of comfort and unease, at times needing more support and guidance from you. Checking in with them individually will be important.
|Call, Email, or Text Every Staff Member||Office Hours||Needs Inventory|
|Divide the staff list among your administration team. If you are the only administrator, pull together your leadership team and have them help you. With your list in hand, send each staff member a quick email, call, or text each week.||Setting office hours can be a structure that supports staff needs, while also supporting your need to have structured time to respond. Use a scheduling tool such as Doodle poll or set consistent times and days when you will be available via web conference or phone to make you accessible to staff. This structure can reduce the number of email responses needed. The information you collect during your office hours also can be content for an internal frequently asked questions list to share with your full staff.||Some team members may be uncomfortable providing verbal feedback, so some teachers or staff members may have additional needs that do not emerge during a meeting or office hours. Offer staff an inventory survey as another way to collect asynchronous input. You can use this sample staff survey to get started.|
Now more than ever teachers need ways to help each other. Encourage teachers to share with one another by providing structures that allow for teachers to collaborate.
|Virtual Professional Learning Communities||Resource Hub|
|Provide a time and space for teachers and staff to collaborate to help them connect and lighten their workload. Use web conferencing tools such as Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, and WebEx to set up synchronous grade-level or content-area meetings. Through these virtual professional learning communities the adult school community can lean on each other to overcome challenges, continue data-informed conversations, provide focused student support, and share what is working well.||Create a space for teachers and staff to collect helpful resources. The internet is flooded with an abundance of tools, videos, and other resources. Having a place for your staff to include resources that work for them is an excellent way to curate what works for your school and your context.|
Suddenly everyone is overwhelmed with emails and calls, and each one understandably feels urgent. It is important to remain mindful of teacher and staff needs beyond the immediate need for information and process updates. While today’s needs may be informational and practical, as the crisis situation continues we will need structures in place to provide additional levels of communication with our staff.
|Virtual Staff Meetings||Professional Learning and Coaching||Celebrations|
|Staff meetings bring together the adult community within the school and offer an opportunity for sharing ideas and growing together. Maintain a structure that brings the whole staff together periodically to sustain the school community, foster school pride, and support the social and emotional health of your staff members.||As time in the remote learning world passes, we will move beyond processes and training and back to professional learning and coaching. Set up structures now that you can leverage for professional learning to lay the foundation for success in coming weeks.||Celebrate successes early and often. Share positive outcomes to elevate progress and highlight knowledge and strategies that have been used successfully within your school community. Structures to celebrate can be stand alone, but also should be integrated into other communication structures.|
Communication Structures for Students
Many leaders have spent the last few weeks focused on setting up instruction for success. As a natural part of this process, teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher communication structures have been put into place. With that priority well supported, we now need to look beyond instruction to consider student communication to foster a feeling of connection to the broader school community.
As we implement remote learning, schools need ways to gather feedback from students to understand how current approaches are working and determine any modifications that need to be made. While teachers might collect this information individually, it will be important for leaders to have an overall understanding of the current situation so that they can adjust and offer support.
|Provide Opportunities for Student Feedback||Check in with Students Individually|
|Create a schoolwide check-in for students to gauge how things are going and solicit feedback from students about their suggestions for improvement. For older students you can use a Google form or similar tool housed on a website or via a learning management system they can access at any time. You might a more structured approach with younger students, like a weekly rating system sent through parents or teachers that allows students to choose an emotion or number of stars for a select set of questions. Teachers can use voice recording to read aloud to nonreaders to get their feedback.||Find ways to check in with students individually during the coming weeks. When students are in school each day we do this when we see them walking down the hall or in advisory periods. Since this is not possible under our current circumstances, schools need to identify students who might need the greatest support and find ways to connect with them and their families. Phone calls can be an easy, low-barrier way to do this.|
Students are feeling a visceral isolation from their peers. It’s important to provide students with some less structured time to foster a sense of community, a time when students can just “be”—to the extent that there are able—rather than “do.” How can we draw on existing structures for socialization to provide students opportunities to engage with their peers beyond academics?
|Clubs||Cafeteria Time or Lunch with a Teacher||Book Buddies/Volunteer Activities|
|If you already had clubs in place at your school, find creative ways to keep these clubs going to encourage positive socialization for students. For middle and high schools, engage students to get these started to ease the burden on teachers who may feel overwhelmed. In elementary schools, consider using paraprofessionals or teacher assistants to take on these responsibilities.||Give younger students a way to connect during lunch time with their teacher and classmates to provide an opportunity for socialization. Set up a once a week lunch schedule using video conferencing platforms to provide a way for teachers to share with their students and to hear about how their students are doing.
Older students often can meet their need for socialization without school-based support. However, many schools have found that there is value in offering time outside of formal instruction for students to ask each other questions about academics and to connect socially. One way to provide a similar structure virtually is having a study hall or “working lunch” that allows students to choose how to split the lunch time between eating and getting extra support. This could occur on a virtual synchronous platform with one adult supervising each “room.”
|Elementary schools often have programs like book buddies in place that pair different classrooms of younger and older students together. Meanwhile, middle and high schools often encourage volunteer hours for students. Look for ways to capitalize on these already existing structures by finding opportunities for students to read together or collaborate on a project using a common book or an essential question. Utilize tools like Padlet and Flipgrid to allow students across grade levels to respond to an assignment or question. Older students assigned as buddies can be responsible for offering feedback or encouragement for their younger partners.|
Students of all ages miss their friends and teachers and the familiarity of day-to-day school activities. It is important to provide opportunities for students to feel connected to their school during this time.
|Morning or Weekly Announcements||School Spirit or Recognition Celebrations||This Week at Your School|
|Daily announcements are a standard for most schools. We use these announcements as a way to share information with our students. In our new virtual environment, daily announcements might not be feasible. Instead, create a weekly audio or video announcement to share with all students to offer familiarity and provide information. The announcements can be elaborate or basic. The important part is consistency.||Find ways to recreate some of the typical school celebrations to provide opportunities for students to be a part of the school community. Some ideas include at-home spirit days, calling students on their birthdays, and mailing certificates or cards to them.||Ask families to share pictures of what they are doing at home either directly with teachers, via school email, or on social media with your school hashtag. This gives students a window into the experiences of their peers and remind them that the school community continues to learn together.|
Communication Structures for Parents
Parents are overwhelmed with multiple things right now. Many are juggling working from home while also trying to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of their children. Some families also are struggling with economic uncertainty and feeding their children. Communication and community can provide a sense of stability for our parents.
Input from parents as we work through the shift to remote learning will parallel input we previously garnered by walking the hallways, cafeteria, and classroom in our buildings. Structures for parents to engage with the school and provide input inform our continuous improvement throughout the upcoming weeks.
|Virtual Open House||Feedback Form/Idea Box||Town Hall|
|For many families and teachers these past few weeks have been the first day of school in a very new school environment. Offer a virtual open house to help families adjust to this new normal, share your expectations and norms, and give parents an opportunity to provide input to teachers and leaders.||Have a virtual version of an idea box to provide an asynchronous way to collect parent input, support continuous improvement, and reduce the number of emails and phone calls coming into the school. This format can help you reach parents who cannot connect at scheduled times or attend virtual events. You also can collect feedback forms while distributing student meals by bus or at designated locations.||Organize a virtual town hall to allow parents to provide input and ask questions. Allow parents to submit questions in advance so you can prepare complete responses and identify needs that have not been met the respond during a live question and answer. Use the information you collect to develop a frequently asked questions section for parents on the school website.|
Just as many schools are navigating new territory, our families must rethink school and their roles in their child’s education. Having a peer group with which to share challenges and successes is as important for parents as it is for educators and students. While parents are not employees of the school, they play an important role in our school community and are being asked to partner with schools in unprecedented ways
|Parent Teacher Association (PTA) Meetings|
|As parents experience new challenges, consider using your PTA as a vehicle for supporting communication within the parent community. In many cases, schools can provide the space and structure for this community and offer a virtual platform for meetings. The PTA also can support the school community by keeping resources such as school announcements and frequently asked questions in accessible online spaces for parents, such as an existing Facebook group.|
Families are looking to the school to provide a sense of stability during this time. Hearing from school leaders will help families remain connected to the school and see their contribution in the school-home partnership.
|Weekly Announcements||Newsletter||Celebrate Success|
|Record a video weekly or send a SchoolMessenger call to each family that provides announcements and celebrations to keep parents connected to the school. As the weeks pass on, it will become increasingly important for parents to see the faces of the school leaders, teachers, and staff, and feel pride in the community through celebrations; common language and norms; and school colors, logos, and mascots.||Most schools produce a newsletter in some form. Continue to use this structure as a familiar outreach tool to parents and also explore new information to include and integrate new communication elements such as weekly video announcements.||Parents need to see the successes of the teachers, students, and school and know that we appreciate their partnership and contribution to this shift. Find ways to share the successes of our families at this time to strengthen pride in the school community.|
Tips for Getting Started
As we embark on a new normal, with school buildings closed, we will need to leverage technology to set up some of these communication structures. A human-centered approach will be important to our success. We must remain mindful of the change everyone is experiencing while creating these structures, drawing on technology that your school community already uses and introduce as few new things as possible. There are many tools that can support communication. Below we list a few which we have seen used across the country:
- Synchronous tools: Zoom, Google Hangout Meets, Cisco WebEx, Microsoft Teams, phone calls
- Asynchronous tools: learning management systems, Google Classroom, Seesaw, Remind, Flipgrid, Boomerang, social media, SchoolMessenger, certificates, email and traditional mail, websites, Screencastify, YouTube
Planning long-term structures for communication can be a daunting task. We encourage all leaders to embrace the community around them. Remember, the principal cannot do this work alone! You must engage your administrative team to meet the needs of your school community. If you are the only administrator in your building, create a team by tapping your media coordinator or grade level/department chair people to support you.
Continue to connect your community and build your culture. Remember to keep your plans simple and consistent. The three-pronged approach outlined in this blog will ensure that you have open channels of communication with everyone in your community.
Theresa Gibson is the executive director of the North Carolina Science Fair Foundation (NCSFF). NCSFF is committed to increasing the awareness of, exposure to, and participation in inquiry-based science learning. In her recent role as associate director at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University (Friday Institute) she managed the development, implementation, and facilitation of the Friday Institute's vertically aligned professional learning programs to support the transition to personalized learning. Ms. Gibson also supported the implementation of the Friday Institute’s national Leadership in Personalized and Digital Learning Program, which has been implemented in fifteen states and nineteen organizations. Ms. Gibson earned her B.S. in mathematics and mathematics education at Buffalo State College and her MBA with a certificate in decision analytics at North Carolina State University. Connect with her on Twitter @theresagibson19 or via email at [email protected].
Nancy Mangum is the associate director of professional learning at the Friday Institute. Her work includes designing programs for school leaders to help them implement digital and personalized learning. Ms. Mangum leads several projects at the Friday Institute that reach educators from across the country including the Digital Leaders Coaching Network, the Leadership in Personalized and Digital Learning Program and the Leading Schools Project. She is the coauthor of the book Leading Personalized and Digital Learning: A Framework for School Change published by Harvard Educational Press. She brings a depth of knowledge about curriculum, pedagogy, and instructional technology with past experiences as a classroom teacher, technology facilitator, and district leader. Connect with her on Twitter @nmangum or via email at [email protected].