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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

EL Study Guide

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Communication is the essence of leadership. Leaders in schools—whether administrators, instructional coaches, or veteran classroom teachers who lead others–nearly always have to communicate with diverse types of people, and always have to tailor their communication carefully to build trust and relationships. Articles in this issue give guidance on the many facets of doing so.

Avoiding Misfires when Communicating to the Public

Author Jean Johnson of Public Agenda–"Getting Your Message Out (and Why It's Not Enough),"–reminds educators that it's not enough these days for school leaders to deliver information clearly to teachers, parents, and stakeholders. Drawing on findings from Public Agenda's many surveys of the American public's attitudes toward K-12 public schooling, Johnson points out that the U.S. population skews toward skeptic and is now less trusting of school administrators as well as other leaders. Communicators in schools must know each audience and its concerns, must communicate often about hopeful matters as well as crises, and must listen to stakeholders sensitively, or their messages will misfire.
One reason communications fail is that leaders aren't aware enough about what families are most focused on and worried about regarding K-12 schools. Their messages, Johnson notes, "tend to reflect what's on leaders' minds, not what's on the minds of most parents and community members." Leaders also often overestimate how much community members know about the aspects of education they're communicating about–which leads to unclear communication on both ends. (Public Agenda data indicate that only 17 percent of U.S. citizens have heard a lot about Common Core standards, so it's worth asking how much they understand RtI, flipped classes, or other topics leaders may mention in school messages without an explanation.)
  • Collect and look over key letters to parents, press releases, longer blog posts, start-of-the-year messages leaders sent, and so on that your school or district put out in 2014. What are the main areas these messages focus on (for instance, test scores, course-taking patterns, or the school's new RtI program). What do they highlight as successes (number of Advanced Placement courses taken? Teachers' special projects?).
  • Consider whether these focuses match what Public Agenda's 2013 survey showed many families' care about—"unmotivated, undisciplined students, disorderly classes and schools, uninvolved parents, and too little community support." Do you think your school's messages to local families address their concerns?
  • What "news" might families or community members be looking for but not find in your school's communications?
  • After several people in your group have attended one or two PTA meetings, discuss together what local parents tend to be concerned about.
Read over "Don't Make Them Come to You" by Walter McKenzie. Consider (and view) the creative multimedia presentations Minnetonka School District made and sent out to families that provided information families were sure to care about and need—such as a webinar giving information for seniors set to apply for college financial aid and a <!--need video link-->video showing the district's kindergarten options. Could your school or district do something like these for the community? What kind of IT resources and expertise could you tap to try this?

Avoiding Misfires with Teachers

Leaders have to communicate with other educators—especially classroom teachers—about those educators' teaching practice and whether they're reaching their professional goals. Susan M. Brookhart and Connie M. Moss ("How to Give Professional Feedback") assert that formative feedback to teachers must be given in the context of a collegial conversation—and any message from a leader who has observed a teacher must connect to that teacher's stated learning goals. The leader's message must be sensitively worded, of course, but it's also key that leader and teacher have a good pre-observation conversation in which both parties feel trust, and in which they clarify what the observer should look for. The leader also needs to ask herself or himself, What did I learn from this observation? From talking with this teacher about instruction?
  • Read the "<LINK URL="http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr15/vol72/num07/How-to-Give-Professional-Feedback.aspx#el201504_3feedback">Three Ways to Look at Feedback</LINK>" section of this article and think about a teacher observation you conducted. Did your setup of the observation and talk with the teacher address what the authors call "the micro view, the snapshot view, and the long view"?
  • Articulate something you learned about teaching from your conversation with a teacher or other colleague you have observed in practice.

Presenting Powerfully

Although authors in this issue acknowledge that school leaders have great intentions about presenting helpful information clearly, pieces by Erik Palmer ("Make Your Presentation Powerful") and Kathleen F. Grove ("Leading Through Stories") admit that many educators don't know how to present in a way that keeps listeners interested—or awake!
  • Read the description of a principal's dull presentation that opens Palmer's article. Think of a presentation you've experienced connected to school that dragged like this and one that was engaging and helpful—and share with the group. Thinking back, what were the key differences?
Palmer says that most educators lack training in public speaking, but that everyone can improve. His first suggestion? Know your audience and tailor your message to their concerns:
Who are your audience members? What do they know? What do they want to know? Do everything you can to get inside their heads. Typically, we speakers focus on our purpose. We think about the message we have to deliver, and we fail to think enough about the people hearing the message. Although our message may be the same … each audience that hears it is different.
  • Think of a presentation or talk you need to deliver to more than one group—or even more than one class—this semester. Brainstorm what characteristics your different audiences will have, as Palmer does, and how you might tailor your words for each one.
  • Palmer says every meaningful talk is a "performance." Do you agree?

For Coaches or Professional Development Presenters

Palmer and Grove both say savvy speakers acknowledge that their teacher audiences may feel preoccupied, unenthused, and even resentful about sitting through a presenter's message. Grove, who has been a teacher, administrator, and presenter, advises telling brief stories that show listeners you have been in their shoes and know their realities. She says, "When presenting to teachers, I'd start by describing my [preoccupied] frame of mind at a typical professional development session I attended as a teacher. … Then I'd request they suspend their own worries for the length of the workshop."
Think of an anecdote you might tell the next time you present to a particular audience that illustrates you've been where they are. If possible, practice within your group telling your anecdotes aloud.

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