As a school district administrator, you know the challenges of social media. The very thought of a parent or other stakeholder logging on to Twitter or Facebook to disparage recent budget projections or question a tough policy decision is enough to get you pacing the floorboards at night.
As superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Michigan, Scott Menzel doesn’t lose sleep over criticism — he embraces it.
“I actually want to know what dissenters in the community have to say and why they are unhappy,” says Menzel in a recent video interview. “Perhaps there is information that we could provide that would address their discontent, perhaps they just need to be heard.”
Menzel has worked across the district to create a culture of open and honest communication — one that both encourages community feedback and commits staff members to responding to stakeholder comments.
The thinking is simple: By giving parents, teachers and others a platform to weigh in on important district decisions and working to close the “feedback loop” his administration can beat back any festering concerns before they ignite into full-blown crises.
What Menzel realized is that dissenters and opponents of the school district are going to make their voices heard — no matter what. Providing access to an always-on communications resource controlled by the district allows administrators to track and lead those conversations, as opposed to reacting to them. This is especially true on social media, says Menzel, where traditionally one-way communications have evolved into opportunities for frank and honest conversations between the district and its stakeholders.
Maintaining order is important. But strong stakeholder communications do more than foster the peace. In the case of Washtenaw, the district uses the information and data it collects in engaging with stakeholders to make better, more informed policy decisions.
“If a school district has to close a building, that is unpopular,” says Menzel. But if you’ve talked to people and gathered enough data, it’s easier to explain why you arrived at that conclusion.
That’s not saying everyone will agree with you — resistance is imminent.
“Individuals who are going to complain about issues or concerns, they are going to do it,” explains Menzel. They’ll do it at the coffee shop. They’ll do it on social media. They’ll do it on Twitter. That information is going to get out there.”
That’s why it’s important to shift the conversation from how do we censor negative feedback to how we do use stakeholder communications, good and bad, to fuel positive change in schools.
“When people feel heard, when they feel listened to, they can become part of the solution for the district and the community,” says Menzel.
It’s good for educators, too. With the help of automated tools, teachers and staff can spend more time focused on their core mission. And when problems do arise — and they inevitably do — school leaders can ensure that they are early or first to know about potential challenges, as opposed to late or last to know. And that, explains Menzel, “makes all the difference.”
Interested in learning more about Washtenaw’s approach to community engagement? Check out the rest of our video interview with Scott.