“Sometimes we tell people – you’re not the educator-in-chief, you’re the firefighter-in-chief.”
Dr. Gerald Dawkins spoke from experience while addressing a standing-room only crowd of school leaders and board members at the 2016 National School Boards Association Annual Conference. A former school district superintendent in Louisiana and Michigan, Dawkins has been there before. He knows that as much as school leaders try to plan for the unpredictable, it’s impossible to prevent every problem.
From crippling snow storms to labor union disputes to incidents of school violence, the challenges of school district leadership are vast and varied.
Regardless of the situation, as superintendents or school board members, your community looks to you for leadership. That leadership starts up front, says Dawkins, not with action, but with your ability to listen.
Dawkins outlined three steps to help school leaders recognize a school crisis through a commitment to listening.
- Set up a listening station. Conversations about your schools happen everywhere, all the time. Make sure you have a way to easily monitor and respond to feedback and social chatter as it happens. Having your ear to the ground will give you a head start on a potential problem or crisis.
- Build a culture of trust. Parents, students, and staff often know and sense problems before you do. They need to know they can come to you when something’s not right. Create a safe place for these conversations and empower your community to speak up.
- Listen like you mean it. There’s passive listening. And there’s authentic listening. School districts are great at getting information out. Where they too often struggle is on the other side of the equation—at listening and responding to feedback, says Dawkins. If you want to stay ahead of a crisis in your district, you have to listen with purpose.
Make your community a partner from Day 1 and make listening and responding to the community your No. 1 priority.
Put it into practice
Listening to your community might sound like a no-brainer. Most school leaders have learned the hard way that it’s easier said than done.
For Dawkins, the solution lies in the ability to create an early-warning system, a feedback loop that gives you time to identify an issue and put your plan into motion before it spirals out of control—or, worse, ends up in the headlines.
Dawkins and co-presenter Jesse Leib demonstrated a solution called Let’s Talk!. The cloud-based online communications tool makes it possible for parents, teachers, students, and others to submit feedback via the school or district’s website, or via social media. Each question or concern is immediately routed to the right person in the district for a quick response.
Community members can choose to remain anonymous or share their names if they wish to receive a response. A special feature called Critical Alerts, immediately alerts the superintendent and a dedicated team of administrators when a sensitive comment or potential threat is reported, giving them the split-second advantage they need to put their crisis plan into action.
What steps do you take to engage your community and stay ahead of potential threats in your district? Tell us in the comments.
Looking for a solution to help you listen and build trust with your school community? Start a conversation today.