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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

The Principal Connection / No Failure to Communicate

    The Principal Connection / No Failure to Communicate- thumbnail
      The teachers at Valley View Elementary were distressed. After a full year of construction, the school was still in major disarray. Frequent network malfunctions in the new computer lab caused work to vanish. The unfinished landscaping invited muddy boots to trample new carpeting, and the jackhammers of construction workers relentlessly punctuated classroom instruction.
      We promised teachers that this, too, would pass. We threatened the foreman, sent urgent messages to the central office, and listened to parents echo the concerns of faculty and students.
      When it became obvious that things weren't changing fast enough, we held a faculty meeting and invited everyone to post their concerns on long sheets of chart paper. The results were eye-opening. What surfaced as the primary cause for anxiety was not the noise, the dirt, the unfinished painting, or even the computer glitches. The number one concern of teachers? If only they knew what was going on. They quoted the famous words from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
      As a result of this meeting, we began to study communication patterns within the building more closely—and discovered significant flaws. We had grown from a small, local community school to a larger, more eclectic institution; the informal communication networks that had served us well when the school's population hovered around 300 students began to falter when the student body reached 500. The hiring of new staff, necessitated by this rise in student population, further increased the need for clear, formal communication.
      Accordingly, we decided to work together to institute a more formal communication system in the school. We began tackling this daunting challenge by forming small, focused committees of staff members who would share problem-solving and decision-making duties and keep the rest of the staff informed of their activities. The first group, appropriately enough, was a communications committee. The day after the group formed, a whiteboard appeared in the faculty room displaying such “news of the day” as names of substitute teachers, news of a relative's health, and times for upcoming meetings. Suddenly the casual “did you hear?” conversations among staff became more open and accurate.
      Many other committees soon cropped up. The safety committee, which included parents as well as school personnel, examined traffic patterns, rerouted school buses as needed, established a more coherent “in and out” traffic pattern for students, and monitored rainy-day traffic. A crisis committee consisting of custodians, the school nurse, secretarial staff, and teacher and paraprofessional representatives planned strategically for potential emergencies. The professional development committee planned meaningful learning activities and developed a formal process enabling teachers to participate in professional development outside school. The budget committee planned and monitored expenditures and maintained financial records.
      A leadership team consisting of chairs from each of these committees met monthly, using time approved by the professional development committee. The members rotated regularly to ensure that the team wouldn't be perceived as some kind of “cabinet” now replacing the power of the principal with its own.
      These teams tapped the energy of many talented teachers. Problems that had previously been referred to the principal's desk were now relegated to teachers, who, in their collective wisdom and because of their daily proximity to students, made decisions far more prudently than I could in isolation. Soon, faculty meetings began to take shape around these committees, as each group reported its activities, announced decisions it had made, and asked for input—with the understanding that we would not revisit all of the committee's work. The faculty came to trust and approve most decisions with little modification.
      To further improve our communication system, we formed an advisory board of parents, teachers, and community members—including a sampling of both the school's most ardent supporters and its most outspoken critics. The board held conversations about school activities, new curriculum, and classroom instruction and reflected clearly the concerns of the community.
      As the school put in place the components of this new system of communication, teacher trust increased. Teachers freely sought and offered advice and made small as well as important decisions more easily. Dour expressions disappeared as teachers began to understand the complexity—and relish the challenge—of decision making. Our efforts to improve communication had the fortunate side effect of fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment in school staff.
      The web of relationships woven between administrators and faculty, between parents and teachers, and among teachers themselves is complex and in an ongoing state of flux. Despite this complexity—and because of it—systems need to be in place to allow information to flow and to ensure that decision making and problem solving are shared. When these essential tasks take place within a climate of trust, there will be no failure to communicate.
      End Notes

      1 This school name is a pseudonym.

      Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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