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February 28, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 6

Creating Communication Plans That Stick

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Leadership
School Culture
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Educators and administrators are in the people business, and emotions are part of our work. As a communications consultant who focuses on adult-to-adult communication in schools, I have a daily front row seat to view this important and sensitive work. When rollouts and implementation of new initiatives happen at a school site, I work with leaders and educators to stay clearheaded and focused. School leaders know that with change comes anxiety, uncertainty, and often a lot of emotion. Things are shifting under everyone’s feet. Leaders have strategies to think through communication plans around change and know at the same time they need to maintain relationships and morale. For leaders, having a set of questions to ask themselves as they plan for and communicate about an initiative is a good frame from which to start.
An administrator once shared with me her frustration with managing an initiative rollout at her school. “So much is just given to us from ‘above,’ she said, meaning the district or state. “We are just the messengers.” Even though this is often the case, being a leader who can implement these strategies is still a critical role. While many things are out of a site leader’s sphere of control, they are still responsible for communicating around the initiative humanely and effectively for colleagues. School leaders need to shape that message and have structures to support that process: They think before they speak. They provide direction before expecting speed. They ask themselves a few key questions as they prepare their faculty for the change ahead.
If the state has already determined that your school is going to use proficiency-based grades, or perhaps the school’s Board of Education has decided that math is the focus for the year, your faculty will look to you as the person to articulate where this challenge came from and how the initiative will be a part of the solution. Good leaders will have a ready response for “Why are we doing this?”—a compelling “why”—and data to back it up. The following questions can guide you into shaping your message so it answers your team’s questions.

Do I know if this challenge is a polarity we need be manage or a problem that we need to be solve? Can I speak to this difference?

Just as we need to both inhale and exhale and can’t do one without the other, knowing the difference between a polarity and a problem will help you to better focus your efforts and shape your communications. Polarities are situations that need to be managed, while problems need to be solved. For example, a polarity is trying to balance our energy to focus on tasks while also managing relationships, or giving students certainty while also providing them with flexibility. It isn’t an “either/or” world. It’s a “both/and” world, and your message needs to communicate that your team might need to rebalance a polarity with the new initiative.
Educator Jane Kise’s book, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools (Corwin, 2014) provides a terrific set of examples of polarities, such as individual and team and continuity and change, and offers “tools and processes for avoiding those pendulum swings by listening to the wisdom of multiple points of view” (p. 2).
One principal I worked with, having a directive from her board to create more equitable experiences for all students across a grade level, rolled out common assessments as the next year’s “must do.” Teachers were frustrated. They wanted autonomy in their classrooms. The administrator had trouble getting buy-in because she didn’t frame the initiative as part of a polarity that was being rebalanced. She needed to communicate both what needed alignment and what could be done with autonomy.
In another school I worked with, tradition ruled and transformation often took a back seat. Students had always done a capstone project their senior year—it was what the school felt made them unique. When new faculty encouraged the school to reconsider redesign for the project, there was some pushback because others had the mindset that it “had always been done that way.” The new faculty persisted, making specific suggestions, and ultimately their changes opened up different ways for students to share their learning.
It is true there are times, for example if safety is an issue, that a leader has a definite problem to solve. The communication in that situation is certain and clear. And yet, with many initiatives, there is a polarity at play and a leader’s message needs to address that. Old ways aren’t inherently wrong. But new ways of looking at things aren’t either. There is a middle ground, and it needs to be discussed so both sides see the opportunity for a “yes, and” moment. School leaders don’t tip the seesaw and create additional resistance before they begin. Instead, they name the polarity and encourage others to see the benefits of the shift.

Can I communicate how this initiative aligns with the values of my school and district?

School leaders know the values their school or district stands for before they move ahead. One district may want students to be resilient, responsible, and respectful. Another says they are student-centered, fearless, social justice-minded, and diversity driven. School leaders give voice to how the initiative makes the values of the school or district come alive. They repeat these connections over again in their communications verbally and in writing. Standing tall and congruent with district values can be a big help as leaders roll out an initiative because it shows the team that the messaging is consistent and part of a bigger vision—not just the leader’s decision. Alignment with district values is critical.

Getting a Communication Plan in Place

School leaders ready themselves with answers to the questions asked above and then create an action plan that includes supports for those who will be doing the work. Here’s where they communicate the what, the why, and the how. Your communication plan should address the following questions:
  • What is the challenge we are facing that we want to address?
  • Who is involved in the decision making?
  • What is the process we use to address the challenge?
  • What values undergirded the choices made in how we will move forward?
  • What are other criteria we need to consider to make a decision? (Research, time frame, etc.)
  • What is the final decision about the steps needed to move forward?
  • What changes will now take place in classrooms or in the school at large? What specific behaviors will be expected when this initiative is put in place?
  • Who will be making those changes?
  • In what time frame do we need to make those changes?
  • What supports will be in place to help those actually implementing the change?
  • When will we be looping back to review the decision?
  • Who does one talk to if there are concerns?
I have worked with principals who say, “I don’t know all of these answers.” If the district in which you work would like you to support their initiatives, it is incumbent upon all involved, from central offices through to the schools, to work together to answer these questions. If you cannot find immediate support from the district, try to shape the message for your staff and share your ideas with your district as well. It might help others who need to shape the message at their sites too.
Make sure to communicate to the right people in the right mediums and do so consistently, over time. Include clear, concise information in staff newsletters and during staff meetings and provide professional learning and reading around the initiative. Add information to your website so families can access it. Continued conversations are key and a variety of communications is essential. It can take many repetitions of the same information for people to really understand basic information, let alone a deep change in practice.

There is a middle ground, and it needs to be discussed so both sides see the opportunity for a “yes, and” moment.

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Many of us may remember when TV moved from analog to digital and cable. TV stations informed viewers of the change for 18 months, and still many watchers were surprised when their “bunny ears” antenna suddenly didn’t work. Until it is critical and urgent for them, many people might not listen as closely as they would like. School leaders know how to communicate over and over in ways others can easily understand and relate to.

Anticipating Pushback

Adaptive leaders consider what the challenges might be before they speak, and they anticipate pushback. It is human to resist change. Planning ahead will help in articulating the answers to the questions teachers will have about the change initiative. When an adaptive leader explains his or her decision and outlines the supports that will be provided, implementation will be more successful.  Here are some anticipated challenges an adaptive leader might consider and the supports they can communicate to their faculty. 

Anticipated Challenge

Responses to the Challenge

People will tell you they don’t know what to do.Share how the school/district will support to them gain the knowledge (through articles, videos, readings, training, etc.).
People will tell you they don’t know how to do it.Share how the school/district will support them to gain the skills (coaching, workshops, etc.).
People will tell you they don’t know why they are doing it.Share data, visuals, and the story behind the change.
People will tell you they weren’t involved in the decision making.Share who the school/district did involve and the reasons for including those individuals. It doesn’t mean that the person asking needs to have been at the table, but they need to see that someone understanding and representing their interests was there.
People will tell you the workload and pressure are increasing too fast.Share how the school/district will change tasks and/or provide support and discuss what responsibilities might be taken away or moved to a lesser priority spot.
People will tell you they don’t have the support, training, or resources.Share how the school/district will provide staff support through mentors, workshops, or other means.
People will tell you they are worried about what will happen if they failShare again and again how the district or school allows for and values inquiry, experimentation, innovation, and a growth mindset.

Clarify, Clarify

School leaders know that it is not acceptable to have hard conversations before having clarifying conversations. Sharing clear expectations in your communication is a great start. If a leader has been clear about the expectations and the action steps needed, and has been supportive with training and time, resources and/or assistance, shared accountability can then occur in a much more understandable way. Clarity before accountability is essential.
It takes cognitive ability and emotional intelligence to think before you speak and to work with others to make an initiative come to life. Consistency, communication, and transparency will help others own the decisions and make the process easier each time it is done.

Jennifer Abrams is an educational consultant and author of several books on adult-to-adult communication in schools, including Having Hard Conversations (Corwin Press, 2009) and Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Skills for Leading Successful School Initiatives (Solution Tree, 2018).



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