“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
— Rudyard Kipling
Communication. When we’re doing it right, we learn, collaborate, and use that knowledge and collaboration to (hopefully) further the interests and benefits of the group as a whole. When we’re doing it wrong, miscommunication can lead to confusion, frustration, misunderstandings, lack of goodwill, decreased morale, and a general breakdown in the flow of ideas, thoughts, and actions.
For school leaders, good communication skills are crucial. A successful leader is able to convey ideas clearly and effectively, while still taking his or her staff into consideration. With good leadership, schools, staff members, and students alike thrive and flourish. Schools run more effectively, and the benefits are felt by everyone, reaching as far as the community and even beyond.
Schools suffering from poor leadership communication end up leaving their students at a disadvantage. Wasting time re-explaining ideas and initiatives, navigating conflicts that develop as a result of misunderstandings, and spending extra time attempting to get reluctant staff on board when changes are made – all of these contribute to a difficult environment in which to create inspiration and instruction for students, not to mention the negative work environment that ensues for teachers.
“Why Doesn’t Every Child Have Quality Teaching?” asks the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) in its ‘No Dream Denied’ Summary Report. “The conventional wisdom is that we lack enough good teachers. But, the conventional wisdom is wrong. The real school staffing problem is teacher retention.” Calling it a “national crisis”, NCTAF goes on to point out that high teacher turnover can leave leaders and administrators scrambling, as well as leaving new teachers in the lurch when it comes to onboarding and mentoring.
A study by The Urban Institute on The Influence of School Administrators on Teacher Retention Decisions finds that “teacher perceptions of the school administration have by far the greatest influence on teacher-retention decisions”. (Another important factor to consider in teacher turnover is teacher burnout. Take a look at our article for school leaders detailing How To Spot Teacher Burnout, as well as our article for teachers sharing Strategies To Avoid Burnout.)
And in the end, all the scrambling, lack of adequate support for teachers, burnout, and high turnover lead to inefficient instruction for students, which in turn leads to a decrease in quality instruction, and finally, lower student achievement.
So how can you, as a school leader, avoid the pitfalls of poor communication? How can you interact with your teachers in a more effective manner?
There are no hard and fast rules, but creating this kind of change can require a good dose of personal insight. If you’re not the type to shuttle up into the mountains for a good old-fashioned visionquest, or if personal introspection by way of insight meditation doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley either, don’t fret, we’ve put together a few suggestions that can either get you on the path to better communication, or simply serve to strengthen the existing skills you’ve already been using.
- Start by evaluating yourself.
Take a look at your existing communication skills and where they stand. Throughout one whole school week, or even just one full day, keep track of everyone you came in contact with during the day (that includes texts, emails, bulletins, newsletters, hand signals, smoke signals – the works!), and take notes not only on who you communicated with, but also what the subject matter was, how you believe you communicated yourself (effectively? efficiently? positively?), as well as what your takeaway from the encounter was in each case (how did it affect your relationship with that person/group?). Finally, do some analysis. Take a look at the information you’ve compiled and see if there are any recurring themes that show up in your communications. Is there anything here you can work on or change altogether?
- Get feedback from others.
Tell teachers to email you with their thoughts, or let them know they can stop by your office, either during predetermined office hours or just any time they have a moment. Keeping an open-door policy is a great way to get feedback – Just make sure that teachers actually feel comfortable enough to use it. If you say your door is always open, but your actions scream UNAVAILABLE, DON’T BOTHER ME, I’M BUSY!, or if your teachers fear being penalized for speaking their mind, you’re not actually going to receive any benefit from maintaining this policy, and you may as well close the door right now!
Ask your team leaders to evaluate you a few times a year. And use this feedback wisely – don’t just get it and forget it. Listen to it, receive any constructive criticism or negative feedback graciously, express your appreciation for it (since you know that means they care enough about you and the school to give their honest feedback), and then consider it thoughtfully. If you find any valuable insights there that can be acted upon – then act upon them! Create a plan for change and stick to it. Make your plan reasonable, achievable, and make sure to check in with yourself, being honest about your progress – or lack thereof! – and revising accordingly. If you’re finding it difficult to get feedback, consider sending around short (anonymous!) surveys, asking teachers to honestly describe your performance. Google Forms and SurveyMonkey are great survey tools. (If you need some ideas to get started, check out Panorama Education’s Administrator Evaluation Survey for inspiration.)
Even if you don’t agree with the feedback you’re getting, find a way to let the person giving it feel their opinion matters and has been taken into account. If there’s something they’re wrong about, this can be a great opportunity for you to note gaps in your communication – and rectify misunderstandings in the process. And if they’re really wrong, well, here’s another opportunity for your to exercise your stellar new communication skills by finding a way to get them to broaden their perspective. I don’t know about you, but I’m always doubly appreciative of people with this skill. Opening my mind up to new possibilities is a great way to gain a new friend out of me, and doing it in a positive and kind way racks up Double Bonus Points in my book!
- Maintain open lines of communication.
Enough said. Without maintaining an open dialogue between staff and teachers, leadership can quickly devolve into dictatorship.
When introducing a new policy or initiative, do your best to make teachers feel included – even if it’s something that’s mandatory. Try to remember back when you were a kid and your parents asked you to do something that seemed completely arbitrary – and incredibly unpleasant. You asked, “But whyyyy?!” and the response was, “Because I said so!” … Remember how maddening that was? This same dynamic can play out in the role of school leadership, leaving teachers and staff feeling unimportant and disgruntled. Make sure you explain things to your teachers, in depth, and kindly, letting them know the reasons you’re making these changes, the effects these changes will have on teachers, and the effects you hope to see in your school (and in student achievement!).
Part of maintaining open lines of communication involves honing your listening skills. You and your teachers are collaborating to improve students’ achievement and experience, every day. When you talk or meet with teachers, ask yourself, What’s the dynamic? Are you giving information or marching orders? Are you allowing for two-way communication? Try to approach conversations from the perspective of ‘What can I learn from this?’.
Listen to your teachers. You hired them for a good reason. They know what they’re talking about and can help you learn too. If they’re doing something right, make sure to praise them and let them know you appreciate them. If they’re doing something wrong, let them know kindly and constructively, in a way you’d like to hear feedback yourself. And if a teacher simply isn’t open to communication/constructive criticism, then maybe it’s time to consider whether that teacher is a good fit for your school.
Ask questions. Ask for clarification if you need it. Ask how their classes are going. Ask if there’s anything they need. My favorite boss regularly asks: “How can I support you?” (and she means it!). Sometimes teachers can be afraid or unaccustomed to asking for help: do your part by making it easier for them to get the support they need.
At the same time, pay attention to your non-verbal communication. What are you saying with your body language? Are you crossing your arms, giving the impression that you’re closed off and not accepting their input? Are you nervous and hesitant? Warm and welcoming? Are you meeting their eyes? Are you making them feel comfortable and heard? Are you giving them your full attention?
One great way to practice listening better is to make it a point to turn off your technology when teachers come to talk with you. They’ll appreciate the gesture you made, and you’ll have less chances to miss out on the things they want to discuss.
Make your teachers feel valued, and let them feel they have a voice and a hand in creating and implementing positive change. This feeling of ownership will lead to their support, along with strengthening your teacher/administrator relationships.
- Be trustworthy.
In an educational environment, things are constantly in flux. Having a team that trusts you is key when it comes to implementing changes and keeping your school running smoothly. Do your teachers trust you? Are you generally true to your word? Do your teachers trust that you’re doing your best to make the best changes for your school? Are you communicating your ideas and vision to your team? If teachers feel you aren’t doing right by them, or the school, or the students, it lowers their motivation to do the right thing too. If, for example, your school doesn’t have the resources to help teachers do their jobs properly, make sure your staff trusts that you are pulling every last string you can find to help create a better work environment and drum up resources however you can.
There are many other things you can do practice good communication with your teachers – I’ve only listed a few you can begin with. If any of these rang true – or didn’t! – or if you have any comments or suggestions you’d like to share, please feel free to chime in below in the comments section! It’s always great to hear your side and learn what’s important to you!