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.
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.
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.
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].