Schools are in their third year of dealing with the pandemic. It’s been a turbulent time as school leaders grappled with a response to a deadly and unpredictable virus. Uncertainty about the virus, and an appropriate, and safe, response, left leadership teams to often chart their own course and respond with little, or no, time for broad community input.
In many school districts, parents and community members had mixed reactions to school closings, online instruction, and adoption of mitigation measures like the use of masks and social distancing by both parents and the larger community. Families’ lives were disrupted. Children were not attending school. Parents were laid off or working from home or required additional childcare for their children. Fear about what the future held was pervasive.
These factors fostered an environment where dissent about school policy and practice increased, often in markedly strident ways. Many times, it was stoked by media coverage as well as political fervor.
The challenge for school leaders is handling conflicting demands from various groups of parents and community members. Leaders find themselves caught in the middle, and no decision seems to provide a reasonable balance for the conflicting views.
Education and public schools are political. Whether the issue was desegregation, vouchers, or school funding, there has always been disagreement about the role and function of schools.
Schools, as one of our most visible institutions, reflect and transmit local values and norms. The difference in the current situation is the intensity of the dissent and the breadth of disagreement about the direction of schools. How do you respond and what long-term strategies do you adopt?
Critics have value
In the face of anger and dissent, it’s a challenge not to respond in kind. But one superintendent we worked for called critics our “best friends.” That’s because they often pointed out gaps in planning, provided alternatives for consideration, and always alerted leaders to simmering issues in the community.
Seeing critics as useful is a challenging juxtaposition. No one likes criticism and a natural response is to defend one’s action. But the way leaders respond to critics, even the fiercest and most vocal, says a lot about their leadership and how confident they are in their decisions.
Be respectful: Even when treated with disrespect, leaders must model respectful and courteous behavior. Never adopt the tactics, or language, used by critics. Carefully choose the words for your response and be sure to use terms that calm rather than inflame. It is critical for leaders to model the behavior and language that contribute to constructive discussion and resolution of differences.
Be inquisitive: Critics often complain that they’re not taken seriously. Demonstrate a genuine interest in what others have to say. When speakers comment on issues during public commentary, listen attentively, take notes, and demonstrate interest. Ask clarifying questions if allowed during the comment period and seek to understand the issues.
Be unfailingly honest: When responding to critics, respond with honesty. If you need more information, say so. Suggest a timeline for when you will respond. Don’t make lack of honesty another area of concern.
Stay true to your values
When things turn contentious, leaders sometimes consider adopting a new or different leadership style. That usually doesn’t work and just adds to the stress of the situation.
It’s important that leaders stay true to their values and beliefs. While any governing board or leadership team will have members with diverse values, they can turn to their mutual statement of beliefs, or vision, that guides the district’s operation. When stressed, it’s important to focus on that vision.
The phrase “doing what’s best for students” can be used to justify almost any action. But sustaining that focus is essential even in difficult times. Successful leaders explain their decisions through a student lens. Framing issues around students, and their learning, is critical.
The dilemma is that changing the beliefs of others is difficult. Psychologists identified three approaches to attitude change: cognitive, social, and behavioral. Cognitive approaches rely on altering the way people think about something. This is often done through information and communication. Behavioral approaches rely on rewards and punishments with people responding to things that have a positive reinforcement. Social approaches rely on copying the beliefs, and behaviors, of people we admire or who are in roles we respect.
You can be talked into an attitude change but to do so information must be presented convincingly. Information doesn’t work if it is seen as confrontational or presented in a way that demeans or minimizes the listener.
For many people, a sense of belonging, or being valued, is the most important social norm. That’s why the behavior of leaders, even when attacked, is important. Critics should be treated with respect, listened to, and provided an opportunity to become engaged as a volunteer or advisory group member.
Critics often feel like they have been marginalized, not listened to, or that their children have been impacted. Listen for indicators of things that contribute to the conflict. Ask questions. Use paraphrasing to show you are listening, and always avoid an emotional reaction.
Avoid accusations that limit conversation and learning. Effective leaders don’t criticize or label people. They also don’t lecture, threaten, or use sarcasm. They do use conversation and questions to dig deeper and gain an understanding of the issues.
We’ve all learned how misinformation shared through social media can shape response to an issue. That has been true throughout the pandemic and it has recently shaped discussion of school curricula. It’s important that school leaders use social media, and other communication strategies, to provide parents and community with timely information about school operations and school planning.
Providing frequent, and timely, updates is essential. Be open about planning and options that are being considered. Clear, frequent, communication builds confidence in the leader as a reliable source of information.
Use a variety of communication tools, including social media, to hear what families and students are saying. These tools can serve as a helpful “early warning” system and alert you to the current tenor of your school community. Monitor your district’s social media accounts and don’t forget sites like Nextdoor (http://nextdoor.com), a site that is focused on neighborhood-level discussion.
Use multiple methods for communication. Traditional formats like newsletters and email reach some constituents but others are more attuned to social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). Be proactive in sharing information but also use these platforms to gather information from your community.
The pandemic raised the visibility of schools as a vital social institution, providing both education but also child-care for families. The response from schools often added to the uncertainty and created anxiety even among the most supportive of parents.
The role of school leader is as much about building positive community relations as it is education. Support from parents and community is essential. Listening to their concerns, even when contentious, is critical. Leaders must have a clear plan of action and a set of skills that will contribute to calming tensions and finding an equitable resolution.