Effective communications

This guide contains suggestions for managing the myriad of everyday communications you are involved in as a principal.

Leader's role

Managing communications effectively is a key dimension of leadership. This is stressed in Kiwi Leadership for Principals (Ministry of Education) and in Tātaiako: Cultural competencies for teachers of Māori learners (Education Council). The cultural competencies of Wānanga and Whanaungatanga contain useful behavioural indicators and outcomes specific to leaders that can be applied in all situations. 

Effective communication underpins the knowledge, skills and dispositions principals require to have a direct and indirect influence on student outcomes, as identified in the Best Evidence Synthesis on leadership.

Taking time to review your communications strategy and ideas will be time well spent. Many problems, in and out of schools, can be directly traced to the effectiveness of your and your school's communications – whether information was communicated or not, what was communicated, how it was communicated, and who communicated it.

Taking time to think about what you want to say will also ensure you maintain your integrity and professionalism, that of your school, and of the wider educational community.

Communication planning

Principals apply a range of formal and informal communication skills every day. Communications may be deliberately planned or ad hoc; face to face or virtual; written, video or verbal; digital or non-digital.

Use a table like the one below to help you get an overview of your communications:

Who?

Why?

How?

Students    
Leadership team    
Teachers    
Parents, whānau – current and prospective   Facebook, LMS, newsletters, face to face, presentations, phone, special evetns, learning conferences, parent teacher evenings
Support staff: office staff, learning assistants, executive officer, caretakers    
Local iwi and hapū    
Board chair    
Board members    
Local principals, other schools, mentor or supervisor    
Outside agencies – for example Ministry of Education     
Parent Teacher Association, alumni association    
Media    
Other    

Then consider how effective your existing communication strategies are:

  • What are your key reasons for communicating with your audiences? What are your key messages?
  • Are your reasons for communicating helping you lead change or lead learning in your school?
  • How do you ensure your key messages are communicated clearly and consistently?
  • How does the way you are communicating help you to build trusting and respectful relationships with your audiences?
  • How do your communication strategies change over time? Are there two or three aspects of communication that you should emphasise during the next year?
  • When did you last review your strategies? What feedback on them do you have or need? 

It may be useful for the board to have a policy or a practice on who communicates formally on behalf of the school, for example if contacted by the media.

It is essential to understand the requirements of New Zealand's privacy and copyright laws.

Copyright in schools – TKI website

In-school communication

Internal communication is just as important as communicating outside the school. Elements of good practice for internal communication include:

  • championing and being a good role model for clear and consistent communication
  • matching your words to your actions – this is part of developing integrity as a leader
  • being committed to open, two-way communication
  • face-to-face communication
  • communicating with empathy – communicating bad news as effectively as good news
  • seeing communication as an essential leadership capability, not as a set of techniques.

Things to try to improve your communication

External feedback

Consider using an interviewer from outside the school, such as your mentor or principal’s appraiser, to carry out a fact-finding review. The interviewer needs to be someone you can rely on to give you honest and constructive feedback. 

Prepare yourself to handle any criticism that may be brought up. Try to view any criticisms as constructive. When you establish that you appreciate feedback and actively take it on board, people will keep you well informed.

You might ask an interviewer to:

  • ask what the two or three most important school development actions and intentions you have been communicating to staff are.
  • ask a range of staff what they think you have been communicating about, and your effectiveness in communicating about those topics. The interviewer simply takes notes and does not comment on the descriptions, apart from seeking clarity. Four or five staff from a range of contexts is plenty; in a small school, may be one or two at most.
  • interview five or six students across a range of year levels. Ask each to describe what you have been communicating. This may be best done in small groups to assist the flow of description and to bring out the range of views.
  • write up what has been discovered and report back to you on the style and effectiveness of your communication.

You may be able to identify gaps and issues with the interviewer. Check whether the choices you've made about the methods you're using are the best ones to focus on.

After getting this snapshot of your communication, use it to help shape new communications. Include this review and your reflections as part of your appraisal.

Internal feedback

Ask a trusted and experienced colleague to provide honest and constructive feedback on any presentations you make. Ask for feedback on a few specific aspects, such as the clarity of your message, quality of your message, audience response, and presentation style. Or ask for feedback on one thing you did well and one thing you could improve on or do differently next time. 

Use this feedback strategy several times a year and remember that this evidence of professional growth and reflection can also feed into your appraisal.

Visiting staff workspaces

By recognising the individual natures and circumstances of staff members principals strengthen trust and connectedness across the staff as a whole. (KLP, p. 23 )

In any good communication, it is important to establish trust and confidence, without which your message may be lost, misconstrued or, worse, ignored.

Build understanding and rapport with staff by meeting with them in their own workspaces from time to time. Staff talking in their own workspaces will be able to put their views across more clearly in context, and are more likely to tell you the reality of what is going on more quickly. Consider informal walks through classrooms; or going along to faculty meetings in an informal capacity.

Conversely, reprimand, criticism, or any disciplinary communication should take place in your office, where you set the stage and the level of formality you want. Remember praise in public, correct in private.

Listening

Effective communication is a two-way process. Bear in mind that you will learn more when you are listening than when you are speaking, and that people will not open up to those they consider poor listeners.

Consider:

  • focussing on the moment and the person speaking – adopting a listening attitude
  • avoiding distractions, for example move away from your computer and put away your phone
  • asking questions instead of just giving answers
  • giving your full attention to what the other party is saying – not just thinking about what you want to say next
  • focusing on what you might learn instead of what you want to teach or instruct
  • asking how you might help
  • seeking clarification and explanation, especially when the tone of the speaker is somewhat critical
  • restating what you think they have said in order to seek clarity and agreement
  • checking whose voices are missing or underrepresented.

Adopt a listening approach for:

  • 'sounds' of learning at your school, such as evidence of curiosity, inquiry, earnest endeavour, shared thinking and collaboration, and teacher facilitation
  • 'sounds' of teachers’ shared approach to teaching, such as team teaching, collaborative planning, questioning, and supporting.

Adopt an analytical ear for the sounds:

  • you want to hear that are absent
  • you hear, but would prefer not to hear.

Add all these sounds to your knowledge bank about the school and use them at appropriate times to make progress on development.

Community communication

Begin with the end in mind. Remember that principals strengthen partnerships and networks to enhance student learning.

Extend your knowledge so that you become an expert on your school community. Share so that education becomes everyone’s business.

Have a broad and simple community communication goal that is appropriate to your school’s setting. For example:

  • a new principal in a small rural school may decide to 'develop and maintain strong interactive communication patterns with each family about their children’s education'.
  • a new principal in a large urban school may decide that 'during the first year, my communications within and across the school community will help me gain a clear understanding of how things are done around here'.

Check that you are listening and communicating with all of your school community: students, staff, whānau, iwi and hapū, and the local community. Go to them as well as finding ways to make them feel welcome at school.

Communication methods

Personal

Your mood, actions, and demeanour

Your body language, moods, and actions convey powerful messages.

  • Confidence in what you are saying and doing is essential. Studies suggest that if you appear confident, others are more likely to agree to what you might propose. Conversely, the less confident you appear in your own message, the more objections you are likely to meet.
  • Failure to complete or carry out a routine task suggests the routine is not important. Similarly, failure to follow through on a goal or promise will undermine your credibility. Ensure the link between what you say and what you do remains close. If a disparity develops between them for any reason, explain why.
  • Remaining approachable while being regarded and consulted as a professional leader with significant knowledge about teaching and learning requires principals to maintain a cheerful demeanour even if the going is tough. The grumpiness of a principal can quickly pervade their school.
  • Remember that you are now a public figure and subject to much more scrutiny than you were as a teacher. Be clear, consistent and transparent so that all members of the community know that what they see is what they get. Enjoy answering questions and discussing the school vision and goals, and listen attentively to all community members.

Phone calls and emails

Treat calls and emails as an important part of the job. These are often the first experience people have of your school.

  • Have an enthusiastic phone voice and manner, even on the worst day.
  • Clearly identify yourself.
  • Use the email subject line to your advantage, that is, as a short summary.
  • Put aside time to answer phone calls and emails. This helps you with time management. Perhaps publicise the best time to ring in newsletters.
  • Answer phone messages and emails within 24 hours if possible but don't rush answers that you need longer to think about.
  • Try for a balance of five calls home to praise students for every one that is critical.
  • Check that the school's answerphone messages, hold music and so on, are compatible with school goals and context. Make them warm, welcoming, and inclusive.  

Face-to-face communication

  • Always listen carefully. Try not to interrupt – think about how much you would dislike it yourself.
  • Appreciate critics and thank them.
  • Treat each conversation as being crucial.
  • Ensure your agendas are applied; take advantage of face-to-face meetings to initiate new discussion about things of importance to you and your school.
  • Make notes. In particular, record agreed times and dates. Tell the person you are talking to what you are recording. Put follow-uo actions in your calendar.
  • Work on reducing your use of conversation dead-air fillers like ‘um’ and ‘er’, as well as cliches and phrases such as ‘you know’, ‘basically’, ‘to be honest’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘the fact of the matter is’, ‘sort of thing’, and so on.
  • Difficult conversations with adults will occur. Don't become defensive – breathe and count to 10.

Communication channels

Internet presence

What's your school's digital footprint like? You and the board of trustees have ultimate responsibility for it. 

  • Decide whether you need closed or public access channels and for whom.
  • Choose platforms that are easy to use, for your school and for the audience(s).
  • Be clear, concise, professional and safe in your content, for example do not post images of children without parental permission.
  • Check content enhances your school's key messages, values and beliefs.
  • Have protocols in place to manage the content.
  • Have more than one person responsible for producing content, moderating content and monitoring for inappropriate responses.

School events

Treat all events as great communication opportunities.

  • Make events as culturally reflective and responsible as possible.
  • Personally meet and greet as many parents and community members as possible.
  • Try not to speak for too long. Keep the focus on student achievement and your school’s current goals. Make it clear what the school’s core business is.
  • Ensure students feel included and rewarded for their effort and achievement.
  • Thank and acknowledge parents and whānau for their support in the learning of their children and for the school.

Newsletters

Newsletters may be digital or paper. Find out how parents, whānau and the local community wish to receive news about the school and its events. Offer a range of options.

School community newsletters should provide the means to inform, promote, gather, and educate. Decide on how you want the balance of these four tasks to work in each newsletter.

To get your intended audience to read your news, it’s best to make it brief, to the point, and customised. Take into account the amount of information people are dealing with today. People have become very discerning information consumers.

  • Ensure the newsletter provides the means to convey important messages about your school’s vision, values, strategies and plans.
  • Align the messages to support your key leadership activities: leading change, leading learning and problem solving.
  • Establish and stick to a regular publication timetable.
  • Use a template for easy preparation of each edition.
  • Enlist others as reporters to gather copy, for example students and staff.
  • Quality is important, but stick to the budget. Establish the highest standards for accuracy of detail and grammar. Have a neutral proofreader.
  • Make sure the school has parental permission to use any photos of students included.
  • Set aside a specific time to do your part of the newsletter, preferably several days before publication is due.
  • Make sure digital newsletters are easy to read online or to download and open.

Remember you have overall responsibility for your newsletters. You must have the final say on what is included and how it is said. 

Principals' views on their communication

Ash Maindonald – Principal

Communication is clearly a key. I tried a couple of things at my previous school that seemed to make a difference.

I visited all the classrooms and asked the children:

What do you love about our school?
What could make it cooler?
What do you expect of me?
What can I expect from you?
What ideas do you have to help us build a family here?

With staff, I prepared a one hour My Education Life Journey presentation. I covered who I was and why, what I believed in, how I saw my role, the mistakes I'd made, and the joys and successes. I was very open, honest, and spoke totally from the heart. They understood what they were to me, what they were to the children and community, and what the possibilities were for our journey forward together.

I published a pretty awesome newsletter, lots of highest-possible quality photos of kids and lots of different ways of getting our core messages and beliefs through to families. It went out every week – sometimes even twice a week.

The three focuses for our newsletter were to inform, to challenge, and to celebrate:

Inform – to keep you in touch with upcoming events, news, and information.

Challenge – we want to produce a new generation of thinkers. We will be teaching children structured and systematic approaches to thinking and providing lots of opportunities to use these skills. Look out for plenty of brain challenges in our newsletter.

Celebrate – our most precious resource is our people. We want to take every opportunity to share with you the wonderful learning experiences that happen here each week.

The quality of our newsletter was very important to us. 

Board meetings featured slideshows of the school in action.

We welcomed and encouraged parents to come to our weekly whānau time – school assembly. The purpose of whānau time was regularly shared: to share family time together; to celebrate the cool and clever things our family members had achieved; to learn more about our family and ways we could be a better family than before.

Building relationships with parents

A principal has offered these comments about the importance of relationship building:

I have found that establishing relationships with each parent who has a child at the school to be quite beneficial. I always use the common ground that we, parents and teachers, have the best interests of the child at heart. This has always been a great starting point.

Initially, the process used to be quite time-consuming. I try to make time for every parent, whether it is 5 or 10 minutes. I have found that it makes a huge difference for our parents that they are acknowledged.

Even parents of children who regularly find themselves in some form of strife at school value this open relationship with the school. They have said that they prefer being kept in the loop, even during the tougher times for their children. As a result, I know that they are just a phone call away, and are always willing to support their child, or other school initiatives.

Term gatherings help. Sometimes it is just a simple morning tea to say thanks. At other times it is a whole school hangi. Turnout at our last parent–teacher–student interview was in excess of 90 per cent. Parents want to make time for their children. I have told them that one way to do so is to come and listen to their child report back on progress / student achievement at the p-t-s interview.

I think back to a few years ago ... things were a lot different. It was difficult to get most parents through the school gate. How things change! I put it largely down to relationship building.

Further information

Dealing with complaints – This guide gives you strategies for some difficult situations. 

Crucial accountability – subtitled Tools for resolving violated expectations, broken commitments and bad behaviour – Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, Switzler.

Learning Talk series – Joan Dalton

Top tips for courageous conversations – National College for School Leadership on Vimeo

Using social media to connect with your community – Enabling e-learning website

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