By Jamie Volmer, President of Jamie Volmer Inc.
Standard 4.0 of the Michigan Standards for Central Office Administrators emphasizes the need for senior administrators to “build and sustain productive district relationships with community partners.” This language is echoed in ESSA, Title IV, and, across the state, increasing public engagement is listed as a primary goal in every strategic plan. But in my experience, as the drama of the school year unfolds, attention to the so-called “community piece” gets shoved aside by more pressing concerns. Execution falls to the communications director if you are lucky enough to have one.
There was a time when this was good enough: educators were respected, and most Michigan taxpayers had kids in school. Not anymore. Shifting demographics, rising expectations, and intense political scrutiny have changed the game. The traditional mandate, “teach our students,” has mutated to become, “raise our kids!” And as administrators struggle to meet this challenge, media pundits, ideologue policymakers, anti-tax crusaders, and self-serving entrepreneurs work 24/7 to erode public trust in their schools. The time has come for everyone on staff – certified and classified – to help engage the people of your community. You need all the support you can get.
MASA members have been listening to me talk about his for almost 30 years at convocations and conferences. Two years ago, however, a superintendent asked if I would go beyond talk and create a resource – a video series – that he could use back home. Part of me dreaded the idea, but, for reasons I can’t explain, the next day I began organizing my thoughts. And as the series took shape, a pattern emerged. I began to see a path that any superintendent could follow to accomplish two goals at no additional cost: energize the staff to be more proactive ambassadors for their schools, and increase public trust and support. This path has six interdependent steps.
Step One – Promote Public Education and Praise Your Staff
In this time of rampant criticism, it is vital that administrators and their staffs stand up and tell the story of public education’s success. Emphasize that public schools have unleashed the potential of tens of millions of Americans both privileged and disenfranchised. Explain that no expenditure of tax dollars yields as high a return as our investment in public schools.
Make the case that your teachers are the most important professionals in your community. Demonstrate how every road to individual and community success runs right through their classroom doors. Highlight their record of achievements. Applaud their dedication. Stress the value of their individual and collective experience. Publicly celebrate their success.
Step Two – Defend public education
Acknowledge the threats facing your schools. Analyze the motivations of those who seek to undermine public support. Provide your staff and allies with the information they need to refute baseless criticism and expose the dangers of empty, free-market rhetoric. Help your staff see that they have the power to speak out and increase support for themselves and their schools. Remind them that they are one of the largest employee groups in the county. Impress upon them that the stakes are too high to remain silent.
At the same time, encourage the staff to eliminate self-inflicted wounds. Show how everyone’s reputation is damaged when staff members bad-mouth one another and their schools in public. Explain the professional and personal benefits that accrue when people shift their attention from the negative to the positive. Ask everyone to look for things in and around their schools that might be considered encouraging, hopeful, or inspirational. Urge them to share their triumphs – big and small – within their social networks.
Step Three – Accept the need for change
Make it clear that defending public education does not mean defending the status quo. Help staff, parents, and the public understand why schools need to change. Reference Thomas Jefferson’s seminal, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” to expose the sorting problem that sits at the heart of the system. Raise awareness that our schools were created to serve an America that no longer exists.
But make sure everyone understands that attempting major change can, and will, inflame passions. Even reasonable reforms backed by logic and research anger those who hold on to rigid mental models of “the way school ought to be.” Ignore this reality at your peril.
Step Four – Overcome resistance to change
Place today’s need for reform in context. Offer a history lesson to show that our schools have always been a work in progress. Review the choices our ancestors made to meet America’s evolving needs and explain the choices we face today.
Address the symbiotic nature of the school/community relationship. Help everyone see that schools are a reflection of local values, traditions, and beliefs. Accept the hard truth that raising student achievement requires more than changing our schools. It requires changing the culture of the communities they serve.
Step Five – Increase community understanding
Help the public understand the challenges you face. Focus on the great majority of people who haven’t stepped inside a school in decades, and, therefore, have archaic and/or simplistic notions of what you are up against. Expose them to the mountain of academic, social, and medical responsibilities that the people of Ohio, through their elected officials, have heaped upon your schools.
Be sure to make the need for reform personal. Connect the dots between improving the quality of local schools and improving the quality of life of everyone in the community. Show people that they have still skin in this game, whether or not they have children in school.
Step Six – Reap the benefits of engagement
Watch as more members of your staff become proactive ambassadors for your schools. Enjoy greater public respect, trust, resources, and support as you work to prepare all children to thrive and prosper. Expedite fundraising. Fulfill your community engagement objective. Set the stage for ever-increasing student success.
Jamie Vollmer is the creator of the video series, The Great Conversation™. He is the author of the book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, and the 2012 Friend of Ohio Public Education. www.schoolscannotdoitalone.com