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March 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 6

Principal Connection / Maybe Your Mirror Is Fuzzy

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Is it time for a reality check on how well you communicate?

LeadershipSchool Culture
Ok, principals, raise your hand if you are an above-average leader with superior communication skills. Yes, I thought so! If we look around our metaphorical room, we'll see that just about every hand is raised. Almost all of us see ourselves as strong leaders who communicate well (my hand is up, too). Of course, we're probably wrong.
Effective two-way communication is an integral part of leadership. We all know that, but often we're too busy to make communicating a priority. Or, as evidenced by our raise-your-hand experiment, we think that we're communicating better than we really are. This superiority illusion isn't limited to principals. Leadership writer Derek Murphy notes that "96 percent of leaders today believe they have above-average people skills, according to a study by the Stanford University School of Business."

Hello? Can You Hear Me Now?

This communication disconnect was evident in comments that groups of high-achieving teachers from around the United States recently made. ASCD convened these teachers to gather their thoughts on the teaching profession and challenges they face. Spontaneously, these super teachers began talking about a lack of communication with their principals, a lack of recognition and appreciation, and a failure to be included in discussions, as these quotes—by three separate participants—reflect:
  • "The principal will tweet things or post stuff on Facebook and community members will respond back, saying you [the principal] are doing such a wonderful job at that school. But what about the ones who are in the trenches doing the actual work with these kids? [What about] something as simple as responding back that it's not just about me, it's about my teachers, it's about what they're doing. … Little things like that, I think, would make a world of difference, because right now the community sees us at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to education."
  • "I've been in that position where the principal didn't like me or speak to me. Like last year, not at all. But you've got to be fine with that if you're putting the students first."
  • "Teacher voices are not heard enough when educational policy decisions are made. When you have those big decisions made at a higher level that directly affect the students in our classroom, teacher voices aren't heard."
Mind you, these teachers were gathered because they were award winners and highly skilled professionals. If these kinds of educators feel that way about relationships with their principals, imagine how the rest of the faculty must feel.

Awareness Is All

I suspect the principals these teachers referenced were unaware that members of their staff experienced their communication style as ineffective or hurtful. Chances are good that your communication skills aren't quite as strong as you think, and that you're not aware of this, So, what to do?
Begin by recognizing the five elements of good communication:
  • It's two-way. Effective communicators ask more than they tell and listen well. They are curious; they want to know what others think and why they think that way.
  • It's frequent. Effective communicators don't wait for a problem. They explain (perhaps even over-explain) what they are doing and their rationale for those actions.
  • It's inclusive. It's important to engage and hear everyone, not just those with whom we are likely to agree.
  • It's face-to-face. Understandably, leaders rely on electronic and paper communications for day-to-day business. So they must create times to talk in person. As a principal, I used to host optional "Breakfast with Tom" sessions a half-dozen times each year, providing an opportunity for teachers to join me and talk about whatever was on their minds.
  • It's responsive. Effective communicators let others know what they heard, repeating back the message they received and clarifying it when necessary.
Why not have faculty anonymously give you some feedback about how well you communicate, perhaps having them rate you on a three-level scale (Needs Improvement, Adequate, and Superior) on how successfully you carry out various communication tasks? For instance, you might ask all teachers to rate you on how well they think you listen, communicate, engage them, share your thinking, and make yourself available for in-person meetings.
The responses may disappoint you, but we need to know what others are thinking. And once you learn your teachers' perceptions and your own weak spots, you can address them. Begin by sharing what you learned from this exercise and how you plan to use that information. Doing that will make a powerful statement!
Now, raise your hand if you are going to work to improve your communications.
End Notes

1 Murphy, D. (2015). "So you think you're an above-average leader" [blog post]. Retrieved from www.leadersbeacon.com/so-you-think-youre-an-above-average-leader

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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