As COVID-19 scrambled school schedules and unbalanced district budgets, America’s school board members and superintendents have been hard-pressed even more than usual to keep constituents, stakeholders, and communities informed.
In real time, we have seen education transform, as superintendents and boards of education have had to modify rigid governance structures to adapt to a global health pandemic. With each vote, school boards and superintendents grew, becoming more flexible and constituent-centered through clear and concise traditional and virtual modes of communication.
In Maximum Impact: Boards of Education and Superintendents Communicating as a Team, we’ve drawn from our 67 years of experience in education leadership, journalism, and public engagement. Our primary aim is to give readers practical examples of situations and strategies by which superintendents and school board members—individually and as teams—can craft compelling messages and then deliver them to their intended audiences.
This article includes two edited excerpts from the book.
The art of listening
One of the main characteristics of a high-performing organization is the ability to listen to its employees, customers, and community members. Listening is critical to all organizations, especially to those that want to be successful in meeting the demands of the people who serve within the organization and the people the organization serves. Too often, organizations focus on public relations, marketing, and conveying a message but fail to include the critical piece of listening to their overall strategy.
Within any school district in the U.S., the amount of information that must be released to students, faculty, staff, parents/guardians, and the community is massive. However, the importance of listening far outweighs the need to release information.
Listening signifies to the person communicating a message that the other person(s) understands, and more importantly, they care and respect the individual who is talking. School boards and the superintendent, together, must encourage feedback and input from the district’s stakeholders. No team can be successful without practicing the art of communication through listening. Think about how powerful listening can be for the board and superintendent. Too many boards of education and superintendent teams never take the time to seek feedback or input, encourage comments, or develop a relationship with stakeholders.
Listening goes well beyond listening to stakeholders. To be effective as a board of education and superintendent team, listening must be a critical element of the team’s relationship. No matter whether the conversation is positive or negative, words of praise or critique, board members and superintendents must have a relationship based on mutual trust—which always begins with listening.
A team culture where each voice is welcomed, heard, and valued is essential. On boards where voices are silenced, members find it difficult to stay focused on their priorities. No matter the issues, boards and superintendents must remain focused on their goals. If not, the slightest problem can have lasting negative effects.
Real listening isn’t easy. Taking the time to listen to each board member, the superintendent, and stakeholders will prove to be difficult, especially during times of budget cuts, curriculum adoptions, controversy, and political years. We maintain that it is during these times that more listening should occur and less talking. No one person, board member, or superintendent has all the answers, which is why a team approach to talking about some of the biggest issues is a no-brainer. Listening in difficult times to diverse voices should be non-negotiable for high-performing teams of boards of education and superintendents.
Low-performing boards and superintendents often focus on placing blame and pointing fingers, not on next steps or possible solutions. A culture of listeners lends itself to a culture of risk-taking, innovation, and stretching the boundaries when it comes to student success. High-performing boards of education and superintendents recognize that focusing on solutions is far more productive for students than finger-pointing.
Practical strategies for listening:
- Create listening opportunities—many of them. Though there are many things to do in a school district, boards of education and superintendents must make time to listen. Many school districts host districtwide opportunities monthly, like “Coffee with the Superintendent,” where stakeholders and constituents have an opportunity to speak informally with leaders within the district. Districts that regularly hold these events not only enjoy districtwide support but also create an empowering district culture that sends the message that every voice is critical to the district’s mission.
- Designate time for each board member to speak. Many school boards use committee structures to empower each board member to concentrate on items they want to pursue, learn more about, or discuss. Furthermore, many boards allow each member time at the biweekly or monthly board meeting to speak briefly about their topics of choice, ask questions, and speak about their interactions with stakeholders since the previous board meeting. Though this may scare some boards and superintendents, this is a great strategy to empower each board member to be part of the district’s mission.
- Focus on the signal, not the ground noise. When differing opinions are expressed and disagreements occur, listen to what is truly being said. Overwhelmingly, each board member and the superintendent is trying to do what is right and create the best opportunities for each student. With this understanding, there must be some give and take. Don’t focus exclusively on some of the most outlandish ideas or remarks but try to figure out what the speaker means. One mistake doesn’t mean a board member is an obstructionist regarding transforming the district, and neither is the superintendent the devil by speaking the truth. Board members and superintendents must focus on action, votes, and deeds, and not necessarily on what is said in the heat of the moment.
'We' not 'me'
In the worst-case scenario, stakeholders’ confidence can dissipate—not just in the leaders themselves but also in the validity of the leaders’ decisions—when boards and superintendents are viewed only within the scope of their different leadership roles. These leaders form a core team essential in school districts everywhere. In many cases, the foundation for these teams’ effectiveness, or the lack thereof, is set by the overall communication strategies they choose to employ.
Though personal ideas, values, and agendas will always be present, the need for a unified message cannot be underestimated. We contend that a unified message does not silence the individual board member, since every board member should have a voice in developing a shared and collaborative message. The board chair and superintendent are responsible for ensuring that every member of the board is active in developing the team’s message to reduce the possibility of public disagreements.
Nor can the word “we” be overemphasized in the relationship between the board of education and the superintendent. Board and superintendent relationships can be complex. They have different, sometimes competing roles, but need each other to provide effective leadership for the district. To be clear, board members and superintendents hopefully took their positions with the desire to do something positive for students. Creating positive outcomes for students must be the “North Star” that forms the united relationship between boards of education and superintendents. From the desire to create positive outcomes for students, a unified message should form in all matters.
The public—constituents, parents, faculty, and staff members—pay attention to what is said by board members and superintendents. If there are competing messages, the public could begin to question the effectiveness of districts and their leaders. Additionally, competing messages foment factions within the district, instead of getting everyone working toward the same goal of helping every student to earn a quality education that helps to prepare them for college or a career.
The word “we” should be heard and clearly conveyed repeatedly in board meetings, press releases, and social media posts, and in public face-to-face meetings. No matter how successful the outcome or the size of the failure, “we” should resonate throughout the message. With “we,” there is no finger-pointing, but rather a collaborative reflection of how the team—the board of education and superintendent—could do things differently that will result in success.
- Develop a strategic vision and communicate this vision regularly and consistently. When the board communicates about any topic, issue, or policy, the message should always relate to the strategic vision for the district. When the board communicates the vision, there is no place for a singular voice, but instead, a united voice.
- Ensure the board has clear roles for communication. In many cases, the board chair should be the face of the communication for the board. Together, the chair and superintendent can communicate agreement in decision-making. Whenever possible, individual board members should work closely with the board chair or vice chair, the superintendent, the public relations officer, or all of the above to make sure that the message is in line with the overall goals of the board.
- Understand that the superintendent works for the board in most cases and communicates the board’s message. Superintendents should not be communicating their personal views alone but the views of the board team. The superintendent can only communicate the message of the board if the superintendent and board have a strong, positive, and collegial working relationship based on trust. Too often, those relationships can derail because of a loss of trust, breach of confidence, or failure to communicate the leadership team’s message accurately.
Maximum Impact is jointly published by the American Association of School Administrators/The School Superintendents Association and Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc. of Lanham, Maryland. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Features include: