An Inquiry into Communication in Schools

Summer relaxation mode is beginning to set in and reflection on the past school year spiral.  The things that brought joy.  The mountains surmounted.  The things you wish you could have a “do over.”  The things you want to aspire to this year.  Communicating effectively with each and every student and staff member and parent and community partner and colleague is a tall order but something I hope others will respond to with ideas.

Establishing a presence in the halls, in the traffic circle, on the playground and at school events communicates a sense that you care about the people in the school community.  Kids will most often readily respond to a smile or an inquiry.  When our school playground was condemned, kids wanted to discuss it on the playground.  There were a plethora of questions:  What were the unsafe parts?  Who decides what is unsafe?  When was it coming down?  Questions were followed with lots of ideas, suggestions and future plans for the new playground. More ideas followed about other things we could do on the school grounds while we were waiting.  I learned a lot during those conversations.

Some adults that are reluctant to make an appointment will have a conversation, ask a question or be encouraged to offer their ideas in a casual context.  This is also the time when they are most open about what they appreciate in the school, in the teachers and in me as a principal.  One parent shared that they could tell I really loved working with kids and appreciated that I made such an effort to get to know the students.   The Parent Advisory Committees (PAC) and parenting sessions can be an effective form of communication with parents but much of that depends on the perception of the role of the principal at the school and who shows up to participate.  I have found it very helpful to work collaboratively with the PAC executive.

The big teapot that I bought for my daughter and decided to keep in my office was a good choice.  Sitting around the big round table with students, staff, parents and colleagues often brought an ease to difficult conversations or sometimes a sense of calm to hectic days.  The poem, Perhaps the World Ends Here, by Joy Harjo inspired the blog post, Perhaps the World Starts Here, and another way to help students to self calm and then move on to problem solving.  It also inspire the Tea with the Principal on the first Friday of the month at 9:15 am for parents wanting to ask questions or discuss issues in education.  Sometimes the group was too large to sit around the table, or people wanted to walk and talk as we toured the school.  Sometimes one or two people would show up with a burning question and delighted to have a cuppa.  School Based Team meetings and Health and Safety Meetings take on a new tone with a cup of tea.   I hadn’t really made the connection to Servant Leadership, coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, until my chief engineer told me that no other principal had ever made her a cup of tea and gave me a heartfelt thank you.  Nanny Keenan and my mother would just call it “Good Manners”.  Next year, I’m hoping to incorporate focus groups that work to problem solve around specific issues.

In all of the schools I have worked in, I make a concerted effort to direct people to the school website for information.  The Twitter feed brings kids with media release to the website to check out recent pictures of them involved in activities at the school.  Some parents will follow the school twitter feed to see pictures and read parenting articles or check out enrichment opportunities in the community.  Hopefully that also helps people to discover library links, information posted on the school calendar and current school news items.

The high cost of paper, photocopying costs and the fact that school newsletters rarely made it to me before events when my children were in school, make hardcopy newsletters my least favourite form of communication.  In my parent community, 99% of families have passed on multiple emails addresses to the school.  As a result, information items can be emailed directly to families.  The issue for some people with busy lives to read all of the email coming into their inboxes.  Although a hardcopy is available in the office, it is rarely picked up.  A few of my colleagues send weekly newsletters or APP reminders so that families come to expect them.  Next year I’m going to send out shorter items on a regular schedule so hopefully they will be anticipated and looked for.

Sometimes I think the problem with staff communication is overkill:

  • Daily reminders by the sign in
  • weekly updates via email
  • hardcopy of weekly updates for reference on the clipboard by the sign in
  • forwarded messages that are pertinent
  • forwarded information that has gone to parents
  • Monthly Staff Meetings, Monthly School Advisory Committee Meetings, Health and Safety Meetings, School Based Team Meetings, Inquiry Meetings …
  • School News on the website
  • Twitter feed on the website
  • Hallway conversations before, during and after school

This year I’m going to add one thing raised at my British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Short Course II at The University of British Columbia – Okanagan campus this July.  Stop. Take the time to get know your staff by meeting with each person individually.  It is my second year in the school and I’m hoping people will identify that I really do want to be helpful  I’m thinking the two questions will be:

  • How can I help you to do your job?
  • How can I support you with your professional learning?

When all is said and done, an open door policy is the best way to nurture fluid conversation.  There are two challenges.  One is that I am often not in my office.  The second challenge is that starting and completing a task, or the time for sustained problem solving, with frequent interruptions.  How many people close there doors and focus on the task at hand during school hours?

When all is said and done, a lot of channels of communication have been established.  Yet, still the quest for more.  Does anyone have any feedback about a channel of communication that has made all the difference?  I’m looking forward to new ideas or tried and true ideas 🙂

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Complexity Theory: Collaboration in Schools

I listened to a great TedTalk today (Zurich, Switzerland 2013) by Nicholas Perony called ” Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory.”  Perony studies animals to understand how they maintain individualized stable social relationships over long periods of time.  Complex social systems in the animal kingdom are identified and broken down into interacting parts based on simple rules with emergent properties.  He grabs our attention with the picture of puppies pinwheeling around a bowl with the sole purpose of accessing the milk.  The dance is deconstructed to identify the one rule – get the milk.  Bats demonstrate simple association rules that result in complex social structures.  Meerkats teach us about the basis for their complex social hierarchy.  Animals show extraordinary complexity that allows them to adapt and respond.  Simplicity becomes complexity that ultimately emerges as resiliency.

Perony acknowledges that the more complex the machine, the more likely something unexpected will go wrong.  What could be more complex than a school community?  Particularly a school community at the end of the school year.   In days gone by or in strict hierarchical systems, perhaps decision making was easier because one person determined the direction.  Ultimately the stress came from the fact that the decisions didn’t reflect the needs of the diverse elements of the school community.

Perony identifies collaboration as an example of a complex system.   We aspire to a democratic process that best reflects the voices at the table and the needs in the school community.  The first time I participated in an Aboriginal Talking Circle, I was itching with impatience as everyone took the time they needed to express their thoughts.  What I have learned over the years is that I just need to be more patient.  Giving people the opportunity to voice their thoughts and provide the opportunity to participate in the decision making process allows us to all walk together on a common path.  With the end of the school year comes celebrations, reporting, ceremonies, transitions, staffing for the next year and planning for September.  All demand time that is in too short supply and requires collaboration.   If we try to break down collaboration to simple rules, does it increase our resiliency?  I can identify two simple rules that I believe facilitate the longevity of positive collaborative relationships.  1.  Respectfully listen to other people’s ideas.  2.  Be willing to change your mind based on what you’ve heard.

What would are your simple rules be to maintain longevity of positive collaborative relationships?  How do you go about defining them in your decision making structures?