Want to Open the Door to a Positive School Culture and Climate? Communication is the Key.

Odette Falone

          “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”-James Humes

It’s no question that we have reached a critical point in education.  Teachers are burned out, and hallways that were once filled with smiles and sounds of learning are now engulfed by a palpable feeling of exasperation.  The world has been through a lot over the last couple of years, and the transition back to “normalcy” has been a rollercoaster ride, to say the least.  Between working to combat the “COVID slide” and addressing a slew of new routines and procedures, teachers are feeling overwhelmed, and the culture and climate of many schools is suffering.  Teacher absenteeism is becoming a trend, along with high rates of turnover. While we are certainly concerned about our teachers, it’s important to remember how much these issues can affect our students.  A school’s culture and climate contributes to teacher wellness, and teacher wellness is directly linked to student achievement.  

So how can administrators begin to unlock the magic door that leads to a positive culture and climate in their schools?  The key is effective communication.

Yes, of course communication is key, but the essential word here is “effective.”  When done well, communication can bring about value through added collaboration between teachers and administrators.  It can cultivate positive progress and improve teacher quality.  It can foster trust and a willingness to problem-solve.  Most of all, more goals are met with less resistance and pushback.  Ineffective communication can cause feelings of confusion and doubt, reluctance from staff, and wasted time spent re-explaining and reviewing concepts that have already been addressed.

So let’s talk about some manageable steps that administrators can take to strengthen their communication skills and promote a positive school culture and climate.

Start with Some Good Old Fashioned Self-Reflection

Before you start to make any changes to the ways in which you communicate with your staff, begin by evaluating yourself.  This will give you a direction in which to begin your efforts.

Consider keeping a communication log for a few days and reflect upon any noticeable trends or gaps.  Take notes about the tone of the conversations you have.  Jot down thoughts about the outcomes of your contacts.  Ask yourself some questions and consider the reasons behind your answers:

-Are you communicating with the same few teachers very often and overlooking others?

-Do you typically send emails or through notes in mailboxes, rather than communicating face-to-face? 

-Might you be avoiding potentially difficult conversations?

As administrators, assumptions matter because they impact how you interact with people (or choose not not interact with people).  The first step towards improving this is to make the unconscious conscious.  Explore your experiences with, and attitudes about, differences by completing a self-reflection exercise.  Consider your responses and learn about your actions from this deep type of thinking. 

Pause and Provide Opportunities for Anonymous Feedback

Administrators have a lot on their plates, and it’s hard not to get caught up with barreling through the academic year at 100 mph, focused primarily on putting out the daily fires.  However, even if teachers are not knocking on your door with issues, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have concerns that need to be heard.  

At some point mid-year, plan to check in on your teachers with a brief survey.  Keep questions simple and to-the-point:

-Where are you seeing success so far this year?  

-What are some concerns that you have?  

-What can your school leaders do to support you better?  

-What kind of professional development would you like to engage in? 

Just by asking these questions, you are bound to learn a great deal of valuable information that can help you refocus your attention on your teachers’ priorities.  Make an effort to address what you can, and it will be noticed.

More specifically, allow your staff to assess the school culture and climate and use their feedback to get them involved in creating and sustaining the culture that they desire.

Make Communication with Teachers a High Priority

Research strongly suggests that having an effective principal is one of the strongest predictors of teacher retention.  Just as positive teacher-student relationships have been directly linked to student achievement, positive administrator-teacher relationships can improve teacher effectiveness.  Building a relationship with each of the many members of your staff can be a daunting task, but allotting just five minutes to speak to each teacher can get the gears moving in the right direction.  These conversations can be informal, but should follow a loose structure to keep the focus on the teacher.  Not sure where to begin?  Our Building Relationships Through Informal Chats document provides a clear guide on how to structure these conversations and make the most of your face-to-face interactions with your teachers.

A frustration often expressed by teachers is that they feel that they are the “last to know” about information that directly affects them and their students.  While this can often be an oversight by busy and overwhelmed administrators everywhere, the sequence in which you share information matters.  Hearing about changes “through the grapevine” sends the message that teachers are not high on their administration’s list of priorities.

Shed Light on the Positive

While it might be difficult for overwhelmed teachers to see the bright spots in the day, moments of success are still happening, and it’s important to redirect their focus to those areas as much as possible.  When observing teachers, keep a log of “success stories” that include positive student interactions, inspiring and engaging activities, or any area of achievement that you notice.  Make it a part of your staff meeting’s agenda to commend a staff member and share their “success story.”  Encourage teachers to share something positive they experienced that week.  

Find that your staff is shy when it comes to public speaking?  Try starting your meetings by asking them to write down a “Yay” of the Day and hang them up in your meeting space for others to read at their leisure.  This will encourage total participation, provide teachers with a sense of empowerment, and yield new opportunities for your staff to learn from others’ successes.

While it’s important to understand that there are many ingredients to be included in the recipe for a positive school culture and climate, effective communication is undoubtedly the base.  Without it, it’s likely that many of the other components can leave a bad taste in your teachers’ mouths.  Start developing your communication skills through self-evaluation, feedback collection, and making conversations with teachers a high-priority.  Take these positive steps, and begin to see more of your goals being met!

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