Want to Know What’s Happening in Your District? How to Listen the Right Way.

shutterstock_179909720Social media has created its share of turbulence for K12 school leaders. There’s no predicting what will happen when members of the vocal minority step onto their social soapbox — whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook or some other emerging forum — to sound off about unpopular or sometimes controversial school district decisions.

But what happens when mounting public backlash boils over, crossing the proverbial threshold from manageable annoyance to crippling public relations disaster?

This is one of several questions confronted by the authors of a new Kettering Foundation report. The findings aren’t exactly cause for celebration among the nation’s K12 school leaders.

“Perhaps the most striking observation from this research is the degree to which educational professionals, even at the district level and even in smaller communities, see themselves as operating in a climate of relentless criticism and second-guessing — one that affects nearly every aspect of their work.”

It’s widely agreed that empowered leaders make for more effective educators. Wouldn’t it be great then if we could move beyond the fear of negativity toward a culture of open and honest communications in schools?

That work is already underway in places such as Deerfield, Ill. DPS 109 is among dozens of school districts that have embraced K12 Insight’s Let’s Talk! feedback solution to quickly address simmering challenges, and to give all stakeholders — not just the vocal minority — a say in important decisions.

Looking to change the culture and tenor of communications in your school district? These six promising practices will get you moving in the right direction.

  1. Shed the fear. It all starts with empowering staff to listen and to respond to feedback. Districts need to move away from the old assumption that all feedback is bad and that inviting discourse with parents and others will encourage negativity, or contribute to an unhealthy dialogue dominated by the vocal few. It’s equally important to show administrators and staff that managing and responding to stakeholder feedback does not create more work. It’s different work, to be sure. The right solution creates efficiencies, ensuring staff spend less time responding to stakeholders, and more time on their core mission: education.
  2. Focus on what you have to gain. There’s no substitute for the value of being the first person to know about a potential problem in your school district. The ability to quickly scan news and social media for potentially harmful statements, and to respond appropriately, outweighs the limited risk associated with airing a handful of negative tweets about your school district. The key is to get out ahead of the controversy — so that you can listen to and understand the issue as opposed to just responding to the problem.
  3. Unleash the power of social media. It’s important that your website has a place where stakeholders can go to weigh on important district decisions or policies. But that’s hardly enough. The best communications tools leverage the full complement of social media to listen and respond to stakeholders. It’s amazing how far a handful of standard, polite, respectfully stated responses will go toward keeping the peace, and making your stakeholders feel heard.
  4. Make it mobile. Don’t rely on desktop applications to manage stakeholder communications. Take advantage of the mobile applications included in Let’s Talk! Use these tools to take the pulse of your district in the palm of your hand. Read, review, and reply to comments and feedback while you’re on the road or visiting different school sites and talk with leaders about issues as they are happening, in real time.
  5. Go wide, go deep. Make sure every administrator in your school system is committed to responding to feedback and to using the information they collect in engaging parents and other stakeholders to make better decisions. There are primarily two ways to do this: (1) Go wide. Get your principals and site-level leaders engaged in every aspect of your communications strategy. Earn their trust by including them in your thought process and leading by example. (2) Go deep. Keep a close eye on your school district account. Make sure the most pressing issues are reflected and accessible on your district and site-level communications pages and give people a clear place to file comments and interact with your communications team.
  6. Promote the heck out of it. If you want your community to fully appreciate the steps you’ve taken as a district to provide better communications — you’ve got to get the word out. Write about your plan in your district newsletter or the local newspaper, talk about your efforts on radio and television, offer up details on your district website and social media, and meet with folks in person. Talk to parents and other stakeholders on the street and in the grocery store, every chance you get.

Changing the culture of communications in any school district is tough. By no means should you expect to achieve overnight success. If you’re integrating Let’s Talk!, or if you are merely thinking about using one of our solutions, we encourage you to reach out to your Relationship Manager and have a frank discussion about how these resources can benefit your school community.

Get in touch with someone now.

Author: Corey Murray

Education writer and editor

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