During the past 15 years public education in the United States has undergone significant transformation. The transformation has been based on a shift toward increased accountability for schools and school districts. The result has been that educators have come under an intense level of scrutiny never before seen in this country. Without question, there is an environment surrounding education and education leaders today, more than ever before, of skepticism.
Understanding the current context in which public schools operate in the United States, education leaders still have to lead, and effectively at that. In order to overcome the skepticism, education leaders have to focus on cultivating and maintaining healthy and productive relationships with stakeholders. The essential groups that must be attended to are: parents, who are members of the community at large, teachers, and students. From my experience as a former school district superintendent, principal, and teacher, I will share a few strategies for developing and maintaining healthy relationships with each stakeholder group.
Parents are the citizenry that elect local school boards and send their children to school each day to be educated. For parents to have trust in a school or school system, they must first know the mission of the organization i.e. “what are we doing.” When parents have a clear idea of what the system or school is doing, to serve students, and “where the system or school is going” i.e. vision, for the future of its service, it is easier to garner their support.
The clarity of mission and vision doesn’t happen by osmosis though. School leaders have to communicate with parents through a dissemination and exchange of ideas. Whether it is through newsletters, e-mails, billboards, robo-calls, text messages, school councils, superintendents’ advisory councils, board meetings, ball games, or community events, school leaders must actively communicate with parents to get feedback and to let them know “what we are doing” and “where we are going.”
Once an effective system of two way communication is established, school leaders must then make themselves accessible to parents. Parents have to know that they can approach school leaders, and meet with them in person if needed, and that their feedback will be thoughtfully considered.
Teachers must also trust school leaders if they are to work effectively together. Teachers are much like parents in that many may be local citizens in the school district and they too must understand the mission and vision of the school district or school before the work can be done. Leaders must actively communicate with teachers as well to keep the mission and vision relevant, to understand where adjustments need to be made, and to provide updates on the organization’s status in achieving its goals. Teachers must also have the opportunity to provide feedback to leaders in multiple formats including school committees, school councils, PTSAs, and through informal conversation and interactions.
The interactions between education leaders and teachers are critical because they impact the fidelity and manner in which the work of schools will be executed. As a result, these interactions must take place in a culture of mutual respect and support. Teachers have to know that they can appropriately voice concerns in a risk free environment. At the same time, teachers must understand that even when leaders disagree with their perspectives, they are still “on their side” in their commitment to education and service to students.
Finally, in order to lead effectively, education leaders must have the trust and respect of students. This is especially important at the building level, because leaders at the building level have daily contact with students. First, building leaders must strive to establish a caring culture in their schools. The way students are greeted each day and in the halls, firm, fair, and consistent discipline, grading practices, available supports for students’ academic needs, opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities, the condition of the physical plant, and even what happens when a student forgets lunch money, all impact the way students perceive the “attitude” of the adults in the building and how they respond to it. It is true, students feed on our energy as educators and we need to be sure that energy is positive. In return, students join us in creating caring, academically focused, and supportive school cultures.
To close, the age of accountability has had a significant impact not only on the academic focus of schools but also on the way that they operate. Increased scrutiny has created an environment in which only those education leaders with strong interpersonal skills will be successful. However, by understanding the current context and addressing key areas, all education leaders can increase their skills and effectively lead their organizations on the road to success.
Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE