Going the Extra Mile…To Not Merely Communicate, but Inspire Confidence With Communication

A couple of months ago, I had the honor and pleasure to present a workshop on “Inspiring Confidence During the ‘Critical Hour’” to colleagues and friends at the California School Public Relations Association (CalSPRA) Fall Conference in Costa Mesa. The workshop aligned with the conference’s theme, “Surviving a Crisis of Confidence”—and also coincides with the efforts of the California School Boards Association, California State PTA, and the California Department of Education’s “Stand Up for Education” campaign, which highlights positive—confidence boosting—stories in education(for more info, visit the website …and, be sure to submit your stories for the campaign!)

This was all extremely timely, as the conference came just two days after we learned the the outcomes of the 2012 Presidential Election, which included the competing education funding measures, Propositions 30 and 38. What became so apparently clear throughout this campaign cycle, and has increased in magnitude is this: public confidence in public education continues to decline, and public trust in education is also declining.  And, do I believe that communication can make a positive impact on building trust and confidence in organizations?  You bet I do!

 

This is the first of several blog entries that will focus on inspiring confidence through communication. Others will focus on crisis communication, as well as other strategies that you can use to inspire confidence in your organization.

Today’s entry focuses on “making the effort” with communications. I was inspired to write this after seeing a couple of friends post on Facebook about two different issues that had two different outcomes. One issue had to do with a school not making the effort to communicate effectively, and the other had to do with a teacher who went out of her way to communicate effectively. I’m actually going to share excerpts from their status updates (with real names removed), because there’s something very impactful about reading something straight from a parent whose confidence in their school was affected by the quality of communications.

Example 1:

“My daughter is sad today. Last Wed a letter was sent home about overcrowded 2nd grade classes, and 4-5 kids were being pulled and put into new class with a new teacher. Thursday we received an auto message that our daughter was chosen for the new class. Daddy talked with the Principal in how impersonal the school’s approach was in handling this.”

Example 2:

“I love getting emails/calls from teachers who appreciate hard work and dedication enough to say something. I just got this email from my daughter’s teacher.

‘I am [first name of my friend’s daughter] chemistry teacher and wanted to email you and let you know she is doing really well in chemistry. She is ending the second six weeks with a 95. In class she is very helpful to her other classmates and seems to really understand the chemistry concepts. If you ever have any questions or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact me.’”

Wow… Can you see the difference in tone and attitude — and confidence in their school — between these two parents’ posts, primarily because of the manner in which the information was communicated? From these examples, I want to offer you three easy approaches to go the extra mile to inspire confidence through communication:

    • Be personal in communication — Especially when a major change is about to happen. One sided communications — a letter home, an autodialer message (even a mass email) is so impersonal and allows no opportunity for dialogue—and major changes require dialogue to prevent misunderstandings. If, after two months of school, a principal needs to move students into a new class because of overcrowding, then, ease that transition by meeting with parents before the change will happen, and answer any questions and concerns at that time. Then, when the change happens, follow up with a phone call with affected parents, and provide the parents an opportunity to meet with the new teacher. This not only conveys a “We care about you” attitude, it also inspires confidence in the parents that the school sees them as a partner in their child’s education.
    • Email can be a very personal tool…when used the right way. High school teachers know that they don’t get to see parents very often, and all too often, their communications with parents happens when something is wrong. Example #2 shows how a teacher made the effort to reach out to a parent, just to let them know their child is performing well and why their child is doing well. And then, the teacher left the door open to additional dialogue. Slam communications dunk!
    • Plan for communications. Making the effort doesn’t have to be only when you have time to make the effort—it must be intentional, and it must be planned. I don’t know if, in Example #1, the principal already notified parents in advance that shifts might happen—I presume, from the parent’s post—that this communication didn’t happen. However, in most situations—even crises—communications can be planned in advance. Advance planning provides an opportunity to be empathetic (“How would I feel if I were the parent or student?”), develop and refine messaging (to avoid messaging mishaps), and to involve stakeholders in the process. Involving stakeholders doesn’t always mean that the outcome will change, but it will ensure that voices are heard, concerns are validated, and increase confidence in your schools’ leaders.

What are some things that can be planned? Here are some easy examples:

Teachers

Accessibility inspires confidence: Be available to parents when they have questions–make it your own policy to return phone calls and emails within 24 hours. Inform parents when you’re not accessible (namely, during instructional hours!), but that your priority is to ensure two-way communication…and stick to it!

Proactive communications inspires confidence:

      • Develop a monthly newsletter (1 page is sufficient!) highlighting what students are learning, what projects are in the pipeline (so parents can prepare!), and upcoming parties and field trips. Make sure you send the principal a copy of this newsletter, too, to keep them in the loop.
      • Biweekly or monthly emails to parents—2-3 sentences is enough—highlighting what the student is doing well, and why, and any areas of focus/improvement.

Engaging parents, school and district leaders as partners inspires confidence:

      • Provide parents a print out of bullet points from your back to school night presentation—that way, parents will have a record of the priorities, curriculum focus and approach you have for the school year.
      • Simply stating—and reiterating through your communications—to parents, “You are a valued partner in your child’s education. Here are ways you can help…”
      • If you have an interesting activity or lab happening in your class, invite your principal, superintendent and school board members (and other elected officials) to participate! Seeing engaged, excited and interested students participating in an activity inspires their confidence in the great job you’re doing as an educator.

Principals

Accessibility inspires confidence — get to know all of your stakeholders: This not only includes parents, but also community groups, community leaders, and business leaders. Include them in your communications, as well. And, don’t forget about staff members, PTA leaders and booster leaders—meet with each employee and leader, and ask them about what is important to them. Opening up these types of conversations will allow you to learn more about these individuals, as well. This can also open up opportunities to discuss some of your own visions—and obtain their feedback, building confidence in your leadership when you launch new initiatives.

Truth inspires confidence-be transparent: This doesn’t mean that you have to divulge confidential information, but this does mean that you can’t hide anything. People will find out the truth, and it’s better for it to come from the leader than from someone else in your school.

Proactive communications inspires confidence: Send parents and staff weekly emails about what is happening at your school, and events in the week ahead. Forecast upcoming needs—future fundraisers, needs for volunteers, chaperones needed for field trips—and reach out accordingly. If major changes are on the forefront, develop a communication plan of action as to how you will reach out to affected stakeholders in a timely manner.

District Administrators

Many of these will be the same as the ones listed for principals, but on a broader level.

Accessibility inspires confidence-get to know all of your stakeholders: Get to know parent, community, business leaders, employee group leaders, and —both by visiting them, and by having a regular means to engage them in your district. Whether you have a regular parent communication group, business leaders roundtable, and/or community leader roundtable (or all of the above), find ways to meaningfully engage these busy leaders in your district, beyond communicating information to them. Posing the question, “How can we help you?” and following up with, “Here’s how we can use your help” are simple ways to establish mutual partnerships with your district’s key stakeholders. Include them in your communications, as well. And, don’t forget about staff members, PTA leaders and booster leaders—meet with each employee and leader, and ask them about what is important to them. Opening up these types of conversations will allow you to learn more about these individuals, as well. This can also open up opportunities to discuss some of your own visions—and obtain their feedback, building confidence in your leadership when you launch new initiatives.

Truth inspires confidence-be transparent: As previously stated, this doesn’t mean that you have to divulge confidential information, but this does mean that you can’t hide anything. People will find out the truth, and it’s better for it to come from the leader than from someone else in your organization. Being the communication authority will ensure that you will be the truth authority, as well.

Proactive communications inspires confidence: Send your staff weekly emails about what is happening in your district, key decisions made by the board of education, and events in the week ahead (both those you are attending, but also highlight ones that are happening at other schools, as this is a great community-builder for your district). Forecast communication needs for major changes, and develop a communication plan of action as to how you will reach out to affected stakeholders in a timely manner.

On a personal level, with my own school-age children, I have dealt with teachers who communicate well, a teacher who rarely ever communicated, and teachers who go the extra mile with their communication.

I bet you can guess which teachers won my vote of confidence and increased my confidence in my children’s school.

About Heather McGowan

Heather McGowan increases public confidence in public education and improves opportunities for non-profit organizations to succeed through proactive communication and marketing. She provides strategic marketing and communication services that exceed her clients’ unique goals and delivers results that motivate audiences to act, change, and/or otherwise change behaviors for a greater good.

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