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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Perspectives / From Messaging to Connecting

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      The famous news reporter tells a story he's told a dozen of times before about being aboard a helicopter attacked by enemy rockets over Iraq. But this time the pilot of the helicopter in question publicly challenges the reporter's "fact." The rest is history.
      A young woman tweeting friends before her plane takes off for Africa makes a joke about how she's not afraid she will get AIDs there—because she's white. The tweet goes viral before her plane even lands. She gets fired the next day from her job in public relations.
      The administrator in charge of declaring snow days does her weather research and communicates through multiple channels that the schools will be open; however, snow arrives on untreated roads and cripples the region. Throughout the day, the district office is flooded with phone calls and e-mails, and "#closeFCPS" begins trending on Twitter.
      Oh, the unanticipated potholes of communication.
      Although school leaders today have many more ways than ever to deliver their messages to multiple audiences, the basic skills of communication—for example, truth-telling, empathy, and having a thick skin—still apply. Always important—but perhaps more so now when messages are remembered, mistakes magnified, and motivation always questioned—good communication remains the most effective way leaders have to build a bond with their community, motivate their staff to improve, and forge life-altering connections with students.
      In this issue of Educational Leadership, our authors address "Communication Skills for Leaders." The first principle? Good communication means connecting with others.
      How to Connect with the Public. In "Getting Your Message Out (and Why It's Not Enough)," Public Agenda's Jean Johnson paints a disturbing picture of how the public perceives the messages launched at them. We have become profoundly skeptical of crafted messaging. Suspecting politicians, scientists, and educators, too, of manipulating the facts to make their points, we the public wonder why everyone is talking at us, but not listening to us. Johnson suggests many ways to listen better, including getting people to the table, offering opportunities for give-and-take, and addressing the problems that communities and families perceive as important before you tackle those that may be first on your own agenda. She shows the undersides of typical approaches—from surveys to public meetings—which, if not used effectively, can solidify misunderstanding and further polarize viewpoints.
      Authors Julie Peterson Combs and colleagues provide some helpful guidance about building a foundation of trust. Without trust, you cannot lead those who will help you fulfill your school's mission. To build trust, leaders must communicate with words and actions that exemplify their genuine care for others; their character (including the courage to face down problems); and their competence and willingness to work hard. They also need to control their own reactiveness. (See the authors' trust-busters for an interesting self-assessment.)
      How to Connect with Fellow Educators. A number of noted authorities on feedback (pp. 24, 32, 38, and 80) address how to improve evaluative and nonevaluative communication with teachers, who frequently fear that every time the principal visits, they will be judged. How does the process of giving feedback become a collegial dialogue? How do conversations become focused on "joint work in the service of learning"? "Both the teacher and principal should learn something from a classroom observation," Susan M. Brookhart and Connie M. Moss write. "The teacher shouldn't be the only one edified by feedback."
      How to Connect with Students. Authors in this issue (p. 66 and online) cite some innovative examples of effective communications with students—and all audiences, really. A particularly fun video is the one in which Minnetonka, Minnesota, school principal Jeff Erickson imparts the school rule "Do the right thing." After a mock lecture in which he threatens to drone on for several hours reading the 90-page student handbook, the students take over the messaging to show their fellow students what doing the right thing looks like in action. An orchestrated spoof beats a lecture any day. As the principal obviously knows, ensuring that other people are heard is as important as being heard yourself.
      Jackie Robinson observed, "A life isn't significant except for its impact on other lives."
      Our authors would agree, and they would add that when it comes to communication, having an impact on others requires moving from messaging to open, two-way connecting.
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      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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