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.