The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw.
When it comes to school communications, never has there been a more accurate statement, however, this should not be interpreted to mean that schools don’t communicate. The reality is quite the opposite. Schools communicate regularly, but not always effectively.
Outdated information on websites, newsletters that are never opened and multiple school apps leave both parents and educators frustrated. Ineffective communication often results in a school community that feels uninformed or excluded, leaving little trust between parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large. This is important because without trust there is little hope of creating a positive school culture.
Trust is the glue that holds relationships together, and in schools trust has been linked to higher student achievement (Louis & Kruse, 2010). Therefore, a positive school culture requires trust, which can only be achieved through communication, and as mentioned above, merely pushing out information without an intentional strategy does not equal communication.
By developing a communications plan schools can transition from merely sharing information to communicating, which can drive meaningful connections that lead to a positive school culture. Here are a few simple steps that can help you develop a plan that works for your school.
Know Your Audiences
Schools have a variety of key stakeholders to reach, and the method used to reach those stakeholders, the frequency of communication and the messages themselves will vary by group.
Generally speaking, the more groups you can identify among these stakeholders the more relevant your communication will be. But to keep things simple for schools, we recommend you group your audiences into three general categories:
- Prospects – this group is the least familiar with your school and is typically comprised of prospective families, employees and donors. They are actively seeking information about your school and typically have more patience to click through website pages and social media sites to learn about your programs and the people at your school.
- Families – we use the term families in the broadest sense to include parents and supporters of students enrolled in your school. This group can be the hardest to reach because their communication needs are specifically tied to the classes and programs in which their child participates. Families want relevant information and they want it to be easy to access.
- Community – a third group of stakeholders which should not be overlooked are the individuals and organizations in your local community who support your school. This may include neighboring residents, local businesses and professionals, even the district itself. They are your local voters for education initiatives, donors and volunteers. Finding ways to keep a positive buzz in your community is important to keeping your local community members engaged.
These groups have different needs, so one message will not resonate among all of them. Categorizing your audience enables you to share messages that each group will find relevant.
Conduct a Needs Assessment
Every school is communicating with the above groups in some fashion. The key is to identify what information is relevant to what audience, the frequency of the communication and the most effective tool to deliver the message.
Rather than simply layer a new communication strategy on top of existing processes, many schools benefit from an initial assessment that takes stock of the current audiences, tools and frequency of information being distributed. When conducting an assessment be sure to gather feedback from staff members and parents – you might be surprised at the number of tools your school is using!
Use this assessment to identify areas of redundancy, opportunities to simplify and tools you can eliminate. Streamlining your delivery methods will make it easier for your messages to be received.
Don’t forget, the information you think is important may not be what parents want to hear. Your assessment should give parents the opportunity to tell you what information they want, and providing that information will increase trust between all parties and reinforce a positive culture.
Create Your Plan
Once you have identified who you are communicating with and what information they seek, identify the best method to reach them and an appropriate schedule to share that information.
Our team has been working with school leaders on their communication strategies for fifteen years and some insights we’ve learned along the way –
- Websites are a great source for static information that doesn’t change frequently such as your origin story and other unique characteristics about your program. Don’t forget to include basic school details like how to enroll, grades served and contact information. Although it’s tempting to put everything on your website, be careful not to treat your site as a storage container for every document you create, and above all, remember school websites are required to be ADA compliant!
- Social media is a great tool to showcase what life is like at your school, and what role you play in the community. Share information on classroom activities, special events, details about school tours, job openings or other community events you’re part of. Many prospects will look at a school’s social media pages before applying to better understand the culture of a school.
- Meetings – a great source of information for prospects, so be sure to offer or attend a few information-gathering opportunities throughout the year. Local job fairs, the district BOE meetings or other community events like concerts or parades are great opportunities for personal interaction and help create buzz about your school.
- Email – primarily sent from teachers to parents, email is a great way to send individual messages. However, parents are overwhelmed by email, so use this medium sparingly to ensure that was does get sent out gets read.
- Messaging apps – although most people seem glued to their cell phones, and mobile devices are rapidly replacing computers as the preferred method to receive information, messaging apps haven’t had the desired effect. Parents are frustrated with the number of apps used within one school, and often find these apps more tedious than efficient.
- Handouts/Flyers – there is a risk anything sent via the ‘Backpack Express’ will end up crumpled at the bottom of a child’s backpack, and many schools are anxious to reduce printing costs. Use this medium sparingly for special events like large fundraisers or school plays.
When selecting the right medium be sure to reference your assessment results. These will be a great indicator of which tools will have the most impact. We’ve listed some of the most common tools here, but they aren’t inclusive of all the tools available, and they may not be the right tools for your specific audience. By understanding who you are sharing information with, what they want to hear and how to reach them, you can develop a strategy that works for everyone.
Don’t forget to review your plan annually. As technology continues to change new tools will be developed and audiences may change their preferred habits. If you see a shift in the audience, the message or the tools you use, don’t be afraid to make changes if something isn’t working.
Join the Conversation
Belinda George, principal of Homer Drive Elementary in Beaumont, TX incorporated storytime sessions on Facebook to ensure every child gets a bedtime story. Says George, “I know if I don’t reach them (students) outside of school I never reach them in school.”
Communication has to occur both within and outside of the school for the activities inside the school to have the greatest impact. How effectively does your school communicate to internal and external audiences? Do your communications tactics have the desired effect?
We don’t typically use our blogs to promote our own services, but on the topic of communications we have to weigh in. This is the core reason our business exists. We are parents. We are educators. We are communication experts. And we have seen the frustration from all sides.
We’ve developed a way to connect everyone involved in a student’s learning journey in one place. No more searching teacher websites, scrolling endlessly through emails, or opening multiple apps. Just communication, relationship-building and inspiring trust. Learn more about SchoolBzz.
Klein, A. (2019) – Washington Post. This elementary school principal reads books on Facebook to ensure her students have a bedtime story. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/03/01/why-this-principal-gets-into-pjs-reads-bedtime-stories-facebook-live-her-students-night/?fbclid=IwAR15eUFe-oFrtP_JWpc2Egh1JBoVRgj-Y14wnZLsizGvGO693P4rKKqYYTM&noredirect=on&utm_term=.b4a3b0c9dffa
Kruse D., Louis, K. (2010) – Advanc-ed.org. Building Strong School Cultures Through Intensified Leadership. https://www.advanc-ed.org/source/building-strong-school-cultures-through-intensified-leadership