Inclusive & Effective Communication: 4 Strategies for Education Leaders
There are plenty of qualities that make up an effective education leader—a relentless focus on teaching and learning, a steadfast commitment to their school vision, and consistent self-reflection, to name a few. It goes without saying, however, that none of these qualities would be possible without excellent communication skills.
Being a great communicator sounds easy in theory, but in the case of a school or district leader, there are several nuances that can make communication challenging. For one, it’s critical that you’re able to personalize your communication style depending on the stakeholder group. Teachers, staff members, parents, students, and community members all have different needs, concerns, and goals—and the message that works for one likely won’t be ideal for the others.
Another important nuance is that communication is about so much more than simply relaying the right message to the right audience. It’s a way to convey empathy and inclusivity, and can go a long way towards creating school environments where voices are heard, connections are forged, and missions can be fulfilled.
The good news is that there are plenty of small actions you can take to ensure your communication style is not only clear, but inclusive. We’ve outlined four best practices below:
Audit your own communication skills
Let’s be honest: it can be tough to improve on something if you’re not quite sure where you are. Auditing your own communication preferences, style, and frequency is a great opportunity to establish a baseline for how you communicate—and what you might want to do differently.
There are a few different ways to approach your audit. One option might be to keep track of everyone you come into contact with during a typical school day—or week—and the communications that happen as a result. Take a moment or two to think about these communications: what the subject matter was, the outcome and key takeaways from the encounter, and how you think the interaction affected your relationship with that person.
Another option is to engage in a bit of more intentional self-reflection by asking yourself a few questions, such as:
- How often do parents, staff, and my other audiences fully understand my messages, emails, and conversations? Do I give enough information and detail, or too much?
- Do people often misunderstand my messages? Am I often surprised that they don’t understand what I’m saying? Where does most of the confusion occur?
- How well do I predict possible causes for confusion or miscommunication, and how well do I deal with those situations?
- How good am I at reading people’s body language when I’m communicating with them?
Having your own data for your audit is important, but it’s equally critical to ask those that you communicate with regularly for their thoughts, too. Sending a survey with a few questions to your teachers and staff will most likely uncover blind spots about your communication style that aren’t apparent to you. In all cases, take the time to analyze the information you’ve compiled. Are there recurring themes that show up in this data, and if so, what are the actions you can improve on?
Build a culture of two-way communication
Equity-focused leaders are always looking for new ways to make sure all members of their school community feel seen and heard—and one of the most effective ways to do this is to prioritize reciprocity through two-way communication.
Think of two-way communication like a tennis match—a game can only happen when the ball is volleyed back and forth.
Two-way communication is exactly what it sounds like: an intentional interaction between two or more people or groups where all participants not only share information and ideas, but also actively listen to what each other is contributing. Think of two-way communication like a tennis match—a game can only happen when the ball is volleyed back and forth.
When implemented consistently, two-way communication can improve the collective performance of the teachers and staff at your schools and districts, build stronger teams and relationships, and create better and more innovative ideas. Teams are also encouraged to collaborate and learn from one another rather than work in silos.
Creating additional opportunities for two-way communication begins with systematizing it. You might implement a series of weekly office hours when parents and school staff know they can come in and talk freely with you. Or, consider holding regular “Ask Me Anything” meetings, where your team can submit questions ahead of time and you spend an hour in-person addressing their asks. If you’re short on time and additional meetings are tough to schedule, sending an email with a one-question survey to take a temperature check can provide additional insight. Regardless of the format, the goal is the same: creating an open line of communication between you and your stakeholders, and vice versa.
Use storytelling to connect and engage
Humans love stories. When you hear a well-told story, it sets off powerful emotional connections in your brain, and in many cases, this emotional connection often causes you to shift your perspective, or even take action.
It’s because of this emotional connection that storytelling can be an essential part of an educational leader’s toolkit. It’s how you build credibility for yourself and your vision—and it’s how you inspire your team to become a part of it. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind as you’re considering anecdotes to share with your school community:
- Focus on showing empathy. Let’s say you’re talking with your teachers. Are there stories from your early education experiences that show you understand their worries? Empathy establishes you as a partner—someone who knows what the groups in your community are going through.
- Connect your story to their context. As you’re telling a story, be sure to pause and ask others to think about their own experiences related to a topic. Let’s say you’re sharing an anecdote about why you decided to become a principal or district leader. Following up your story with, “Has anyone else felt the same way I did?” or “Think about that person in your life who believed you could do more” will go far in terms of making your message more relatable.
- Always connect your story to a goal. Whether you’re telling a story in person or in writing, consider what you want to achieve by sharing it. What are you hoping the story will accomplish? Begin with your goal in mind, and then think about stories you have that might move your audience toward the desired result.
- Rely on compelling data. Not everyone feels comfortable telling stories, especially about their own experiences—and that’s okay. Instead, consider compiling a set of interesting statistics that accentuate the point you want to make. There are plenty of emotional connections that can be made through data points and facts.
Give—and ask for—impactful feedback
Speaking of feedback, don’t be afraid to ask for it. School and district leaders are often the last people to receive feedback, so developing a structure to ask for feedback will be your best bet.
As a school or district leader, you’re no stranger to giving feedback to your teams. Feedback is a necessary part of your role. It’s essential for your teachers and staff to receive feedback not only to improve their skills and level up their confidence, but also to improve the outcomes of the students in your care.
When we think about feedback, so much of the focus tends to be on what we’re going to say, or the format in which we’re going to say it. While this is no doubt important, it’s how effective leaders communicate feedback that matters most to their teams.
If you find yourself struggling with how to best do that, think about how you prefer to receive feedback. Most likely, you’d want the conversation to begin on a positive note before having what needs to be improved described to you in a non-judgemental way that targets your work, not you personally. You might also appreciate a two-way discussion that includes active listening, guidance on how to improve, and an offer to revisit or discuss after you’ve had time to reflect and implement any suggestions. Your teachers and staff are looking for the same course of action.
Speaking of feedback, don’t be afraid to ask for it. School and district leaders are often the last people to receive feedback, so developing a structure to ask for feedback will be your best bet. Consider some of the ideas to enhance two-way communication—these can be great avenues for getting insight into your own leadership performance as well.
Communication: more than information exchange
An effective communication strategy is more than the sharing of information—it’s the sharing of meaning. The more you’re able to tailor your communication so that everyone in your school community feels welcomed, valued, and respected, the easier it will be to find common ground and work together to make sure students succeed.