8 Ways To Improve How Schools Relate To Communities
by TeachThought Staff
Ed note: Though the word ‘parents’ is used, the premise of the article is really about how schools communicate with communities at large. Whether the communication is intended for a grandparent raising a child, a local organization that works with schools, or parents themselves, the point is communication.
Like doctors, teachers have a ‘way about them’–a beside manner.
If you’ve ever been to a doctor with poor bedside manners, you know how important those manners can be. Doctors that seem to float in the room above you, use language you barely understand (or say very little at all), rush their time with you, and leave you with a prescription on their way out are all-too-common.
This is not great doctoring, but rather a doctor serving the medical field or the profession itself. A doctor that always wanted to be a doctor and thinks of themselves as a doctor–a doctor with a certificate on the wall that says that they are, in fact, a doctor.
A doctor is, at best, half of a relationship that requires a patient in need of care, and also medicine, research, insurance, and so on. In lieu of their legendary acclaim, a doctor is no more important than a sick patient.
You can’t be a great doctor if you don’t serve patients–and you can’t be a great teacher if you don’t serve students and communities.
An Example Of The Babble Districts Give To Communities
It’s no secret that, in lieu of the tools available to connect them, the distance between schools and families is widening.
Whether it’s ‘new math,’ a perceived lack of homework, confusion about standards and requisite assessment practices, or any other number of reasons, schools long ago turned inward by developing new bonds with corporations, technology brands, universities, testing ‘brands,’ and even one another while permitting the bonds between classrooms and communities to atrophy.
Case in point, see the letter below, written by Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky (several years ago). While well-intended, there is little here that would resonate with families and communities, especially those that they so badly need to connect with.
Just look at the word choice.
commissioned…external….objective…auditors…central office…organizational structure…audit…plan…system…monitor…goals…prepare…measurable…work…align…expected…55,000 degree goals……position…progress…management…guide…governance…discrepancies…ameliorate!
And, bunched all together in the last paragraph on the way out the door? Community, learning, and families.
The tone is both sterile and a bit worried. Even the font is difficult to read, and the overall aesthetic–from the form and tone to the diction and evidence cited, is decidedly corporate.
We were audited but don’t worry–we are going to be transparent and work hard to meet goals.
This can’t be our best thinking. Can you imagine a doctor talking to you about your pregnancy or high-blood pressure or illness of your child like this?
So how can we improve? A lot of it is common sense–smiling, making eye-contact, listening instead of waiting for your turn to talk, extending meaningful invitations, using positive pre-suppositions when you talk about their child, and more.
Below are eight critical characteristics of functional and growth-oriented school-to-home communication that we might consider. If you are just able to do most of these most of the time, your bedside manner as a teacher can become one of your most important teaching tools.
8 Things Teachers Can Do To Improve Their Bedside Manner: Improving How Schools Relate to Communities
1. Talk like a human being.
Schools should communicate to people like they’re people, not co-managers of the walking knowledge vessels that will eventually reflect the failures and success of the school in a future pie chart.
Education serves people, not the other way around. Our teaching and learning systems exist to, among other things, create literate citizens that can live well. In that way, the terms of communication between schools and communities should be grounded in human compassion, language, and tone.
Just as even a brilliant doctor can struggle with their bedside manners, our teachers, administrators, and superintendents suffer from the education-equivalent as well.
If it’s ‘parent-centered,’ at worst any message should be information those parents need to know communicated in a way they understand.
If it doesn’t sound like a caring human being speaking on equal and non-patronizing terms to another caring human being, don’t send it.
2. Communicate with, not to.
When possible, schools should communicate to parents in ways that promote dialogue. This is affected by…
1. What’s being discussed (topics that can benefit from dialogue, not already-made decisions)
2. How it’s being discussed (debate, conversation, collaborative, board vs crowded room with one microphone, over chili and bad punch, etc.)
3. Where it’s being discussed (in-person, the phone, parent-teacher conferences, etc.)
4. Why it’s being discussed (to problem-solve, to brainstorm, to clarify, to iterate, to revisit, etc.)
If it doesn’t sound like a caring human being speaking on equal and non-patronizing terms to another caring human being in a way that benefits from or allows for a useful response, don’t send it.
3. Have a point and make it actionable.
Not all communication will fit this characteristic, but in large part, communication with parents should have a purpose that leads to something outside of the heads it’s being communicated between.
Put another way, that message should change something, and since communities are why schools exist, it makes sense that families (even if they are non-responsive and don’t show up and never write back and don’t understand, etc.) should often act in response to any ‘communication.’ Turning back to business language, if every message has a specific call-to-action, then it follows that every message would lead to something changing.
Have a budget issue to communicate to local businesses? Ask them to provide a tip or resource via Google Forms.
Have a new program to introduce? Ask parents to attend a meeting–or even a simple webinar–on what the program is and what you hope it accomplishes for them.
Audited by the state and want to get out ahead of any confusion about the results? Create a visual with the data and your response, then start a conversation around the plan that can lead to community-wide support in the forms of donations, committee formations, voting, work with students through project-based learning, and more.
If it doesn’t sound like a caring human being speaking on equal and non-patronizing terms to another caring human being in a way that benefits from or allows for a useful response or action on the part of the reader, don’t send it.
4. Be consistent.
In both frequency and message, help parents understand what to expect from you and when and how to expect it–and how they can help.
Consistency is the difference between forming a message or forming a relationship.
5. Try to tie the purpose of the message to the purpose of the school.
Don’t send a newsletter home about paving the school parking lot or asking for door prizes for a school dance if they haven’t heard the first word about the learning and well-being of their children all year.
6. Make it about their child.
If you have a child of your own that attends a school, whenever you read a message from that school of one of your first thoughts is likely, “How does this affect my child?’
When communicating with parents, not every message will directly affect their child, but try to map out how it could affect them–or even all students at large.
In a perfect world, every message would be different for every reader, referencing the student, their history, how this communication affects them, and what they should do based on their specific circumstances. Of course, that’s not possible, but the more personalized the message is, the more precise and effective that message is.
7. Make sure they can read it.
Every wonder how pharmacies can read the scribble of a doctor?
This is closely related to the ‘personalized’ characteristic above. Whether that means form and platform (e.g., a letter versus a tweet versus a blog post versus a phone call, etc.), the native language of the reader, reading level, or some other facet, the accessibility of a message is obviously critical.
And as much as possible, it should be timely. The right information at the right time through the right platform. It’s difficult to be accessible, actionable, or personalized if it’s not timely.
8. Embrace the contradictions
Good teaching requires an educator to be many things at once, and sometimes they can contradict one another: Compassionate and clinical, authentic and professional, consistent and kind. These are a few of the many ‘soft skills’ of teaching, and may be the most impactful in regards to creating an approachable ‘bedside manner’ for teachers.
Sometimes these characteristics may seem at odds. The point is, it’s possible to be a clinical and compassionate, authentic and ‘professional,’ compassionate and empathetic and kind. In fact, the most successful professionals are often the ones best able to pull this off.
*previously published at TeachThought.com