But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
Whether you’ve heard the song via Nina Simone, The Animals, or countless other covers, the lyrics speak a consistent message.
I’m imperfect but I mean well. I hope others will understand.
This message comes to mind frequently when reflecting on the current challenges facing school districts. Whether they find themselves at the center of a political debate — especially one built upon false assumptions about what schools do and teach — or they struggle to win over families and the rest of the local community, the reasons inevitably trace back to a lack of proactive communication. The same is true for school leaders who want buy-in for a new curriculum, tool, or PD program and feel like the teachers just don’t “get it.” Why don’t they understand this is a good thing?
It starts by understanding that communication is, yes, an obligation — and fulfilling that duty — but also by embracing the opportunities presented by telling your story.
Fulfilling communication obligations
As a leader in any professional setting, becoming a clear and proactive communicator is a requirement.
Not only is it unfair to force employees to read one’s mind — it’s unproductive. It’s no way to earn trust, to equip employees with confidence, or to create a cohesive understanding of organizational goals.
In a mission-driven enterprise focused on a greater good — especially one that’s publicly-funded, as schools are — the obligation is even greater. I don’t know the origin of this idea, but I’ve heard it said that, if you believe the work you’re doing is important, it’s your moral obligation to share it. For education leaders making a difference every day — who are often uncomfortable with the idea of “self-promotion” — this is an idea on which to reflect. When the broader narrative is working against us, and specifically creating an unhealthy environment for our teachers, is it not our obligation to reverse it?
So, schools have both the more basic obligations — transparency around spending, alerting parents to the essentials, etc. — as well as these higher-level concerns to think about. And they are all critical, if not positively motivating. But that’s where the opportunity comes in.
Seizing the opportunities around us
Proactive communication is much more than an item on the “checklist.” Checklists are for maintenance. Finding new opportunities helps us grow and build.
By viewing communication — including storytelling — as a proactive tool, schools can craft a better, more positive, and more resilient narrative around their work. Think of this:
- Educators and parents have the same goal — to have their kids learn and succeed. But how would parents know that, truly? Does the school consistently communicate its efforts to create exciting new programs for all students? Attempt to build a brand that everyone in the community can identify with? Explain the foundational purpose behind its decisions?
- Do schools seem to get demerited every time one thing goes wrong, but never credited for the nine good things they just did? Well…does anybody know about those nine good things?
- Do well-planned programs and improvement efforts get derailed by seemingly bad faith opponents popping up in the community?
- Are teachers failing to see the benefits of new programs — and instead suffering increased stress, burnout, confusion, and mistrust?
When leaders fail to illustrate the full context of their work through consistent communication, there’s no one else to blame when things go bad. The starting point is to internalize why communication is an obligation and opportunity, then make the mindset shift to apply these lessons for success.
How to help your school district clients
If you provide products or services to districts, all the above likely feels familiar. Perhaps you’ve had potential clients who couldn’t work with you for unclear reasons, or others for whom the project met confusing opposition. Why doesn’t everyone see we’re trying to do what’s best for educators and kids?
To get over these hurdles — and help your clients, their faculty and students, and yourself — consider encouraging districts to communicate proactively about your work together:
- Rather than waiting for someone in the community to say, “they’re spending money on that?” and create their own narrative around the district’s motivations, work with the schools to make a proactive announcement and lead the narrative. Make sure they explain how your work together aligns to their mission and how it’s going to mean great things for students.
- Encourage leaders to include teachers in the process when you’re developing a new plan for curriculum, PD, or any other implementation. Help them take the lead on contextualizing and articulating the vision, and provide FAQs and other resources to support their conversations with staff.
- As you engage in ongoing work, take charge of identifying opportunities for storytelling. What are some of the latest successes schools have achieved that can be touted to the community? Can you provide the PR and communications support to tell those stories?
These are just a few ideas that will make a big difference for your clients, and by extension, for you. Don’t be afraid to get creative and find new ways to spotlight high-impact work.
About the author
Ross Romano is CEO of September Strategies, a consulting firm helping K-12 companies and nonprofits make the right moves to go from vision to decision. Ross is an experienced organizational leader and strategic advisor frequently sought after for thought leadership strategy and content development, team and talent evaluation, business development and marketing strategy, and audience-specific messaging platforms. He frequently writes about human-centered, empathic leadership and storytelling principles for company leaders and founders. Connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.