I was speaking with the superintendent of a mid-sized district in the Midwest this week. He is an old friend and someone I regard as an expert in education leadership and school leadership. We had not had a chance to connect in some time. He was updating me on developments with a school administrator in his districts and we were sharing thoughts on all manner of tangentially related topics.
The conversation turned towards my current research project on School Climate and Culture. He is very familiar with the work we do in this area and has used our services in prior districts. As we discussed the need for and importance of conducting nationally normed school culture studies, he said something rather simple but profound. “We do a pretty good job of talking to teachers but I don’t think we always do a great job of listening,” he said. I assumed at the time that he was speaking about district administrators in general. Not surprisingly, I agree with him.
The lack of two-way communication is prevalent at all levels of education. (In fact, it is prevalent at all levels in many types of organizations not just schools and school districts.) Communication, like water, tends to flow most easily downhill. Yet at the best schools and the best school districts, communication also flows “uphill” nearly as well.
Best practices in communication would fill a book. But with respect to two-way communication, I will attempt to summarize what I’ve seen in a few paragraphs. Here goes:
1. Upward communication takes work. Downstream communication seems to happen naturally in most schools and school districts. It may take some effort but information tends to get dispersed through a variety of means. Yet communication and feedback that moves UP the chain of command does not always happen naturally. Leaders have to be ready to listen and to hear. They need to communicate that willingness to listen to staff. They need to set up structures for staff to be heard. This takes work and requires being intentional about your upward feedback goals.
2. Committees are not enough. Committees are a great way to create formal or in-formal groups to deal with a variety of issues. Oftentimes permanent or ad hoc committees of teachers will work on key issues like discipline, text book adoption, or school improvement. These are great opportunities for teachers to be heard and to exercise their own leadership skills. But they are not enough. The task of committees are limited both by the scope of their charter and the individuals who are assigned. Upward communication should be much broader. It should draw from a wider range of individuals and topics. And, even with a proper structure of committees, school and district leaders must be ready to listen and hear what is said.
3. Create a feedback culture. In some schools, staff members feel a strong sense of empowerment and entitlement to speak their mind. They do so in an appropriate and useful manner. And they benefit from a cultural element that they, very likely, take for granted. Many schools simply do not operate that way. Some school administrators are either unwilling or unable to listen to feedback from teachers. Teachers either feel at-risk for sharing their ideas or feel dismissed when presenting their opinions. The typical results it to drive these idea underground. This is not good. Otherwise good (and sometimes bad) ideas are forced underground and become fodder for the malcontents in the organization. Left unchecked, a principal will have a rapidly “toxifying” culture on his or her hands.
4. Use 360 degree feedback with school leaders. There are fabulous 360 degree feedback tools for school administrators. By using these with principals, assistant principals, department heads, and district administrators, it does a couple of things. First, it provides valuable input to leaders about what their superiors, peers and subordinates think about their leadership style. Second, it sensitizes these leaders to thinking objectively about how their style is being perceived. Done correctly, these types of tools create a better empowered and better educated school leader.
5. Share some decision making – but not all decision making. Despite all of the importance that we place on listening and developing structures to enable faculty members to be heard, the ultimate responsibility for the school lies with the principal. He or she should be prepared to listen and make decisions. Even after carefully weighing input, a principal will still need to make tough decisions. Sometimes those decisions will not be popular. In my experience however, the leaders who take the time to listen and provides the opportunity for all sides to be considered will gain better buy-in from staff regardless of the decision.
Scott Wallace is the Executive Director of the National Center for School Leadership. To learn more about their services and how they work to improve school culture and develop school leaders, visit their website at http://www.ncfsl.org/