Barriers to Communication
School leaders can experience several barriers to communication, but one of the most frustrating is to follow a popular leader. Those shoes are tough to fill. If your predecessor was LOVED, then you may hear crickets more than you hear feedback from your staff during the first few months of school. Especially if you’re also experiencing a year of big district change, then you need to to go extra lengths to ensure than your staff see you as an open communicator.
Open communicators maintain open faces, and then listen before they offer ideas (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 205). Ensuring that you open your eyes a little more than normal, close your mouth, and truly listen with absolutely no intention of offering your thoughts until the other speaker finishes will help your staff member feel truly respected and heard. You’ll establish a reputation as a listener, which few new administrators have. You’ll also establish trust: “a listening culture built on relational trust can contribute to a positive relational ecology that supports members of a school community as they go through the challenging and sometimes difficult process of changing their school culture” (Brown, 2017). As we redevelop a school culture or school ecology under a new principal, we often need to redevelop new trust, as well.
I have had the pleasure of working for very successful administrators, and one of my favorite principals was
RUN RIGHT OUT OF THE BUILDING after one year. All she did was follow a talented, well-loved principal, and she did it in a year of frustrating change, which was mandated by the district. Her failure was almost guaranteed by district-level administrators, and when she failed to listen instead of talk, she also contributed to her own demise.
High Emotions Preventing Authentic Conversation
Another hot coal administrators should watch for is frustration. Emotions can run high, especially during testing, just before winter break, and right before the end of the school year. School years when change comes “too much too fast” are also going to be particularly emotional. “Great leaders maintain strong staff cultures by remaining continually on the lookout for warning signs” of emotional frustration in their staff (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 203). Talented administrators address frustration before it gets out of hand by being proactive instead of reactive so powderkegs don’t explode, in other words. My district in Pueblo, Colorado, showed signs of frustration for three years leading up to our strike, and those signs were ignored by district administrators. They paid dearly as a result, and they still paid teachers their raises, which they had hoped to withhold, at the end of the strike. They refused to engage in authentic conversation for years, and their rhetoric eventually led to a stoppage. I hope I never work in such a stalemate again.
Inspiring Better Communication for My Staff
From these two experiences I have learned that maintaining an open line of communication, a listening demeanor, and a truly authentic conversation where the rhetoric is not a power dynamic on either side, is essential for the staff and the administrator. Providing a culture of “listening” ensures a culture of growth where administrators can “look for signs of stress before those signs become larger problems” that affect learning (Bambrick-Santoyo & Peiser, 2012, p. 203). I hope to develop a culture of effective listening and learning for my staff, which will provide a resultant culture of listening and learning for our students.
So much is changing in the world of education; one change administrators need to make quickly is in how they use presentations. Professional presentations still have a place in education, but we need to use them effectively to offer professional development and discussions for our stakeholders, which they actually ask for so the stakeholders in attendance are choosing their professional time based on need instead of sitting in a large meeting, which may not even meet their needs at all.
Presentations should also be used to roll out confusing or important content to staff and/or stakeholders the first time because most of us need visuals to comprehend new information. When we’re sharing the results of an accreditation or building audit, we need to use digital representations in a meaningful presentation as we share the information with staff. They want the information, and they want to see organized representations of their content, which increase their speed of analysis. When we share summative data, we need to do the same.
My favorite method for staff-wide data meetings is to send relevant information a day before the meeting so passionate change leaders can review it prior to the meeting and consider trends they see. Then the entire staff can meet quickly, having had a chance to review data individually. We have to remember as administrators that we should model what we want to see in classrooms: "No one wants to be talked at for any significant long time. Especially not students who are forced to stay seated for hours at a time. Don’t speak straight through your presentation without a little engagement. Use questions, role-playing and small group discussions to get students involved” (Allison, 2018).
If we want teachers to increase student engagement and make lessons, which are student-driven, then we need to provide meetings, which do exactly the same thing. At the staff-wide meeting, principals can discuss primary trends in the data on the exciting side and on the challenging side to balance the message; then they should break the staff into discussion groups, which include at least one change leader, who can provide deeper analysis from shared data; all staff members can contribute their analysis and suggest trends from the data not noted by other staff members.
The changes needed based on our summative data and upon our mandated legislative changes are NOT something principals should share in staff-wide presentations lasting more than 10 minutes. Many teachers passionately want to live change. They analyze data trends without being told to do so and independently strategize about how changes can happen in their unique classrooms; asking them to attend trainings, which teach them how to analyze data, how to make changes, and how to implement those changes is offensively wasteful of their talents . . . and their time. Change plans need input from the entire staff through a survey, but they don’t require that the entire staff be present for each step in the process. Change leaders need to attend meetings to help develop change plans, to develop campus directives based on annual plans, and to develop ongoing modifications to those plans during each new quarter.
Most staff members need smaller meetings designed to meet their needs so they can quickly and efficiently implement changes with support (and do so at their unique comfort/talent level): “the most successful learning events with teachers involved brief periods of direct instruction (5–15 minutes) followed by longer periods of practice and application (20–30 minutes) and debriefing (10–15 minutes)” (Margolis, 2009).. A good analogy for these types of meetings are IEP meetings. I don’t invite a whole class to one student’s meeting—that meeting is only for the one student. But administrators often conduct meetings for the entire staff, which really only help a few in the audience. The most beautiful presentation, when used in this manner, is still unhelpful.