Effective communications

Communication and leadership

Effective communication from management ensures that employees stay engaged in their work … Internal communication, which was once a soft skill, has now been proved to have hard business impacts. (Diana Clement, New Zealand Herald, 23 July 2008)

Clement goes on to suggest that good communication requires a prepared strategy. Elements of best-practice internal communication can include:

  • the chief executive championing and being a good role model for communication
  • words from leaders matching their actions
  • commitment to two-way communication
  • face-to-face communication
  • bad news being communicated as effectively as good
  • communication being seen as a management function, not a set of techniques.

While written for all businesses, the strategy has direct application to school principals. Kiwi Leadership for Principals reinforces this point, showing how successful communication and working relationships combine in school leadership.

Many problems, in and out of school, can be directly traced to whether information was communicated, how it was communicated, and who communicated it. Managing communications effectively is a key leadership skill, and taking time to review your communications strategy and ideas will be time well spent.

In-school communication: who with, and why

Use a table like this to summarise your communications:

Communications overview

Who?

Why?

How?

Students    
Deputy principal / leadership team    
Teachers    
Parents   Newsletter, face to face, speech/presentation, phone
Office staff    
Caretaker    
Board members    
Board chair    
Local principals / mentor    

Consider:

  • At the end of the day, list everyone you communicated with during that day, for no matter how short a time. Your results may be surprising.
  • Are your reasons for communicating helping you lead the school in managing change?
  • Is the way you communicate actively assisting you in problem solving?
  • Is the way you communicate helping you to strengthen working relationships?
  • Are there two or three aspects of communication you should emphasise during the next year?
  • Is communication difficult for you? What can you do to resolve this?

In-school communication: things to try

Principals leading change and principals who are effective problem solvers apply a range of communication skills every day.

How do you communicate your ideas?

Use an interviewer from outside the school (such as your mentor or principal’s appraiser) to carry out a fact-finding review. Here are a range of tasks you might ask an interviewer to undertake:

  • 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 is plenty, and in a small school there may only 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 completed in small groups to assist the flow of description and bring out the range of views.
  • Write up what has been discovered and then 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 made about the methods above are still the best ones to focus on.

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

Before embarking on this exercise, ensure the interviewer is someone you can rely on to give honest feedback and that you can handle 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.

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Useful communication ideas

 A. Critical feedback

Ask an experienced staff member to comment on any presentations you make. Ask for feedback on the clarity of message, quality of message, audience response, and presentation style.This feedback should be verbal and done informally soon after the presentation. Again, make sure the feedback will be honest and do not take any criticism personally.

You will be surprised at how effectively this feedback helps improve your delivery of key messages.

B. 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 )

Build understanding and rapport with staff by meeting with them in their own workspaces from time to time. In any good communication, it is important to establish trust and confidence, without which your message may be lost or, worse, ignored. Staff communicating 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.

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.
 
C. Listening

When you’re listening to others, remember that 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:

  • 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.

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.

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Connecting with your school community

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 a new principal in a small rural school, this could be: '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: '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.'

A. 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, and if a disparity between them develops for any reason, explain why.
  • Remaining approachable while 'being regarded and consulted as a professional leader with significant knowledge about teaching and learning' (KLP, p. 18) 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 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.

B. Phone communication

Principals … demonstrate the inter-personal skills needed for building strong relationships with key stakeholder groups. (KLP, p. 20)

  • Have an enthusiastic phone voice and manner (even on the worst day!).
  • Clearly identify yourself.
  • Put aside time for phone calls (answer messages within 24 hours if possible, and perhaps establish in newsletters the best time to ring) and treat them as an important part of the job.
  • Try to establish 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 encourage contact.

C. 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.
  • Make notes and, in particular, record agreed times and dates (and always try to meet the deadlines in advance). Tell the person you are talking to what you are recording.
  • Work on reducing your use of conversation dead-air fillers like ‘um’ and ‘er’, as well as clichéd phrases or words 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. Effective relationship skills 'play an important part in managing conflicts of interest, supporting and challenging teacher practices, and dealing with a range of challenges and situations.' (KLP, p. 13) An excellent book on the subject is Crucial Confrontations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, 2005, McGraw Hill), which is subtitled 'Tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations and bad behaviour'.

This Dealing with Complaints guide gives you a strategy for some difficult situations. Seek advice from other principals, the New Zealand School Trustees Association, or your principals' association, especially where employment issues are involved.

See Top Tips for Courageous Conversations from the National College for School Leadership, UK

D. School events

  • Treat all events as great communication opportunities.
  • Personally meet and greet as many parents and community members as possible.
  • Create speaking opportunities where you do not speak for too long, but do 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.

E. Newsletters

Take into account that modern society is one of information overload and people have become very discerning information consumers. If your newsletter is even going to be read in such a selective information market, it’s best to make it brief, to the point, and customised to capture the attention of the target audience.

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.

  • Ensure the newsletter provides the means to convey important messages about your school’s strategies and plans.
  • Align the messages to support your key leadership activities: Leading and managing change, 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 (if they are available).
  • Quality is important, but stick to the budget. Establish the highest standards for accuracy of detail and grammar. Have a neutral proofreader!
  • Set aside a specific time to do your part of the newsletter (preferably several days before publication is due).
  • It's up to you whether to publish online or not – but remember that electronic newsletters need to be up to date and must be easy to open and download.

Examples of newsletters

Check out these examples for informing, educating, gathering, and promoting.

Maungaraki School

Reporoa College

F. Community connections

These two packages of resources and ideas are very useful:

Better Relationships for Better Learning – use this Ministry document as a valuable resource and guide to community connections.
Building Community Relationships – more resources for leadership.

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Principals' views on their communication

Effective principals have external networks that range from face to face through to online contacts. Networks help provide them with up-to-date and relevant knowledge about educational trends and issues. (KLP, p. 20)

Ash Maindonald – Principal, Kaiapoi Borough School

Ash has given us permission to share his comments about aspects of communication:

Communication is clearly a key – I tried a couple of things 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 are to the children and community, and what the possibilities were for our journey from here together.

I publish 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 goes out every week – sometimes two a week.

The three focuses for our newsletter are 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 at KBS are our people. We want to take every opportunity to share with you the wonderful learning experiences that happen here each week.

Quality is very important to us. Our newsletter is produced on a new 'state-of-the-art' Xerox copier. Twice a term we will use this copier to produce the newsletter in colour.

Board meetings feature slideshows of the school in action.

We welcome and encourage parents to come to our weekly whānau time – school assembly. The purpose is regularly shared (which is to share family time together; to celebrate the cool and clever things our family members have achieved; to learn more about our family and ways we can 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 expressed 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 past the school gate. How things change! I put it largely down to relationship building.

See the KLP on relationships.

Does this guide meet your needs? If not, let us know: contact@educationalleaders.govt.nz

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Readers' comments

  • Deafult profile.

    Communication - Ash Maindonald

    H. Bergmann

    Posted on 09/9/2009 6:44pm

    I am privileged to work under the guidance of Ash and have experienced the wonderful way how he maintains quality relationships with his staff. I have been hugely encouraged and supported in the way he trust his staff and are able to bring the best out in us. This then again are to the advantage of the children. My respect for him is based on how he applies his knowledge of people and educational principles to acquire and maintain quality relationships with his staff, parents and children. Hannelie Bergmann (Teacher Kaiapoi Borough School).

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