Communication Skills of Leaders
By Abner Oakes
ISA's Director of Outreach
“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” – American Journalist & Author, Sydney J. Harris
How to effectively forge a strong school environment and enhance learning using ongoing communication that is both transparent and supportive.
A school leader who is an effective communicator can assert a powerful influence in forging a positive school environment that facilitates learning. Effective leaders communicate authenticity and trust so that others are willing to join them and contribute their voices to the mission of the school. They express complex ideas plainly so that all stakeholders understand what they mean. They are visible and approachable, and they reach out to the members of their community because they value their concerns, insights, and contributions. They get to know their community because they value that relationship. Clear, transparent communication is especially important when a school aims to build student and family trust, engagement, break down barriers, and enact innovative pedagogy, as does Hudson High School of Learning Technologies.
A Place of Hope and Discovery
Anonymity is death in education. When leaders, teachers, and students feel that they are just another statistic or number, and count for nothing, bad things start to happen. People cease to leverage their own personal power. Teachers can’t remember why they’re involved with this work in the first place, and students forget that school should be a place of hope, discovery, and planning for their futures.
As the principal of Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in Manhattan – a 486-pupil institution comprised of 60% Latino, 24% African American, and 16% White/Asian students (68% of whom receive free lunch) – I take great pride in leading an urban school with a hometown feel. Based on our location and student body composition, we work with many families who feel disenchanted with the school system. Many of their children have experienced challenges and conflict in schools, resulting in a parents’ school experience being less about “partnering” and more about being told what their child has been doing wrong (with the unspoken implication that the parents have gone wrong in raising that child).
The experiences, judgments and juggling of blame when faced with the challenges of educating our urban youth undermine the nature of the family-school relationship, which intensifies the need for our administrative and educational teams to help reinstate an affinity and respect for the educational system we represent. This dilemma has pushed us to sharpen our communication skills in new and innovative ways. As an Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) school, we focus on ISA’s seven principles model, which includes principles for building relationships and personalizing schools. These principles are a part of the cornerstone of Hudson.
Intent on streamlining communications and forming strong bonds with all of our stakeholders, we start by focusing on the positive. We find something positive in every student and acknowledge that, rather than dwelling on the negative. When talking with students and parents, particularly the difficult, crises-oriented talks, we always contextualize the conversations by using phrases such as, “This is an adolescent who made a poor decision” versus “This is a bad child.” Focusing on the action rather than the person helps the student and parent understand that the student has the capacity to make a better choice. We hold all individuals accountable for their actions and decisions, and strive to have only respectful, two-way conversations that result in a solid action plan (around helping students make better decisions) for the future.
I use the same approach with educators, who should always receive positive reinforcement regarding classroom activities and successes. In any classroom that I walk into on any day, I can point to a success and talk about it with the respective teacher. During classroom observations, I also look for areas for improvement – namely, one or two changes that have the best chance of translating into positive student outcomes.
Once a specific challenge has been identified, I work with teachers directly to help improve and enhance the classroom experience. For example, if I see that a teacher is having difficulty with student grouping in his classroom, and that checking for understanding and comprehension is an ongoing issue, then I ask myself, “How can I work with the educator in a way that will show the most improvement for the students and ensure that learners benefit from the change in instruction and practice?”
Through this entire process – which includes following up to make sure the new strategies have been implemented and that they are indeed producing results – I engage in direct and supportive conversations with teachers. I am specific in my comments regarding success and areas for improvement so that expectations are clear. This helps to ensure an ongoing cycle of actionable feedback and a continual cycle of excellence and improvement.
Walking the Walk
Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I remind myself of this credo when developing communication strategies at Hudson, where we really do value the input of all stakeholders – not just leaders and administrators. For instance, every Wednesday afternoon is professional development time at Hudson, where we support teachers in designing and implementing interesting projects that support our commitment to strong communications with families and the community. One of these projects found us sitting down as a group and plotting out every one of our student’s addresses on Google Maps. Since we serve pupils from all over New York City and in the five boroughs, we wanted to know where our students were coming from.
Once we had all of the information plotted out, teams of teachers went out into those neighborhoods to see where pupils live, where their parents shop for groceries, where the nearest libraries are, and what it feels like to take the train into school every morning. We see this as a great way to get to know students and their families, relate to them, and understand their cultures and values. Over time, we think this will help enhance our relationships with our families and inform our communication strategies so that we can engage students and parents more authentically in the educational experience.
Key Starting Points
School leaders who are struggling to identify their own best practices in terms of communication should start by talking to all stakeholders about how they want to be communicated with. Be honest with yourself during this initial exercise, and think about your willingness to consider the responses you receive and how the current system of communication helps to support your school’s vison and mission. As leaders, it’s all too easy for us to get caught up in the big picture without asking the question, “What does this look like in practice?” However, drilling down to the handful of steps that can result in substantial communication improvements is a good way to begin. Here are a few ways to hone your “clearer picture” thinking:
- Understand that you can’t fix everything at once. There are always going to be areas for improvement at your school, but you can’t change everything all at once. Come up with a workable list of goals that align with your school’s shared vision, always asking yourself questions like, “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this still an important component for our work…or not?” From there, come up with actionable steps that you, your administration, and your team can begin to implement. “We are not there yet” is an acceptable state to be in, as long as you are on the road to your destination.
- Become a good listener. As I mentioned earlier in this article, listening is less about formulating responses to questions and more about actually taking the time to hear what other people are saying. When you stop handing out directives and instead take a step back and listen to what your staff, students, parents, and community partners are saying, you’ll be surprised with the results. Through it all, your role is to help others understand a shared vision for success and to give them opportunities to articulate proposed solutions.
- Include stakeholders in the conversation. The best leaders give people the opportunity to share their ideas and expertise. When, as educational leaders, we lock ourselves in a room, examine the problem (outside of the implementers or anyone else who is involved), find a solution, iron out the details of that solution, and then roll it out, we leave no room for collaboration and alternative solutions that can result from the collective participation and collective knowledge of our community. When we problem solve in isolation, we exclude the voices of our community that need to be heard.
- Find ways to distribute leadership. To develop the most effective communication skills for your school community, factor in distributed leadership. As a key focus for ISA, distributed leadership means that school leaders distribute leadership roles and responsibilities based on individuals’ expertise. They expect grade-level teams to discuss their practices, and analyze student performance data and use this information to inform their instructional decisions and interventions. The grade level team is a powerful tool for teacher communication. Science, math, English, and social studies teachers meet twice a week to discuss key issues and problem solve with one another. In ISA’s model, grade level interdisciplinary teams of teachers teach the same cohort of students so that they form a safety net for those students and each other. This is very different from a traditional model, where a science teacher typically may not know the English teacher on their grade level.
When developing a strategy for clear communication, it’s important to remember that a good leader listens and gives all stakeholders the opportunity to voice their ideas. Everyone then has the opportunity to ask questions, pose possible scenarios, and learn what colleagues think. These multiple perspectives can inform solutions that embody the best thinking of stakeholders. Along the way, individuals get the opportunity to form strong, supportive bonds with one another and build trust, thus enhancing communication.
A New Twist: Communication in the Digital Age
Hudson is a digital school. We use Google Apps for Education; we have a significant web presence, and a broad digital footprint. All of our information is shared online with faculty via our Professional Information Electronically (PIE) blog and very few pieces of paper are ever put into a physical mailbox. Every student and all families have Hudson High School email addresses, and we use Twitter and Facebook regularly. Equipped with these digital tools, we have been able to leverage social media and other platforms to extend our communication.
As we started adding these digital tools to our portfolio, we learned quickly that being a “digital native” is much different than being a “digital learner.” So while our students are quick to log onto Snapchat or Instagram when they are out of school, they’re less likely to use these platforms for learning – or, even follow a school Facebook page. The digital divide between social needs and school demands puts a new twist on things and has pushed us to tailor our approach to digital communication. Right now, for example, though a core group of parents follow us on Facebook and a group of students use Twitter to interact with us, communication with the rest of our constituents happens in more traditional ways.
We’re still exploring the digital communication front, but overall we see social media and other digital tools as viable options for personalizing outreach in the future. To get there, we’ll have to determine which tools work for which individuals – from tweets to texts to picking up the phone to make a call. We do whatever it takes.
In conclusion, effectively forging a strong school community where learning is both enhanced and nurtured requires ongoing communication that is both transparent and supportive. By taking a holistic approach, by becoming a good listener, and by including all constituents in the conversation, school leaders can make impressive strides in engaging all stakeholders in their schools.
MacKenzie, G., (1998). Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated.
The Institute for Student Achievement. The Seven Principles. //www.studentachievement.org/approach/the-seven-principles/