Lessons in communication from a head teacher

I first published this analysis of the communications I receive from my daughter’s head teacher back in May, on my LinkedIn feed. Since then she has continued to provide updates, information and reassurance to parents, under incredibly difficult circumstances.

I’m featuring blogs on the topic of comms, leaders and direction during October. So as we approach the half-term break, this seems a good time to remind you of the things that our head does and which work really well.

The words lessons learned on a green background
Communication with parents
Schools’ communication with parents often gets a bad reputation. Parents complain there is too much information, too little information, bad format, not enough joining up, too little notice. Sometimes the criticism is justified, sometimes not. When schools have so many other things on their plate, finding time to get communication right must be a thankless task.

My daughter started secondary school last autumn. There are many changes from primary, including communication opportunities for parents. We are no longer standing at the school gates and are more reliant on our children to tell us what’s going on. This is both good and bad, allowing our kids to be more independent and frustrating those parents who want to be more directly involved.

Our interactions with our daughter’s school began way back when we were first checking out secondary school options. From the start, my husband and I have been impressed with the head teacher and her communication style. This has only increased since the covid ‘situation’ began.

We live in the area where one of the first cases of the virus in this country was reported (note – it seems weird to read this now, considering how big the number of cases has become). This was not just in this area, but specifically a teaching assistant in a local school. It is an urban area with interconnected communities and lots of collaboration between schools.

In other words, the virus was in our school system and very close to home.

From that time on, our head teacher has been giving a masterclass in communication. Her emails to parents are reassuring us, providing us with information, creating a sense of community and give a genuine bright spot at a time that often feels dark and overwhelming.

What’s been so good?
These are the things that I think make her communication so good:

  • Regular and reliable.
  • From the start she set out expectations of when she would communicate with us and stuck to that. Frequency of contact has varied at different stages of the crisis, with daily updates in the weeks running up to school closures and weekly ones since. Each time the changes are clearly explained in advance.

  • Audience understanding.
  • She is clearly thinking about what we want to know, as well as what she needs us to know. There are a variety of methods in place to gather parents’ concerns, such as surveys and inviting questions. I would guess that she and her team are also keeping an eye on relevant social media groups. They are using this insight to inform the messages they send. Concerns such as whether anyone in school is showing symptoms or how much work should my child be doing have been addressed in a timely and open way (update – that information continues, with regular updates on how the virus is affecting our school community).

  • Tone.
  • The tone of the messages is consistent and spot on. It has been calm and reassuring, striking the right balance between authority (‘this is what will happen’) and collaboration (‘we are in this together’). She has also remained relatable; for example, she has children of her own and like us is balancing support for them with carrying on with her job.

  • Honesty.
  • She has been open when she doesn’t know what’s happening and has talked about planning for a variety of potential scenarios (update – there was a lot of that over the summer in particular). She acknowledges that it’s not easy to home school, telling us about her struggles with her own children, and has added flexibility to arrangements for required schoolwork. The result of this honesty, of course, is that parents trust her. We know that she and her team are doing their best for us all.

  • Actions.
  • Where appropriate, the emails have given us things to do. For example, when school was still open in March she encouraged us to provide our children with hand sanitizer, since school was struggling to source any. During lockdown she asked parents to let the school know how our children were getting on at home and if we thought they should get a special mention in the ‘Hot Choc Friday’ emails for specific achievements. Having at least a small thing to do enables us to feel less helpless.

  • Phases.
  • I believe that communication related to a lengthy situation needs to reflect different stages. Our head has followed that approach.

    Early emerging crisis – she focussed on the direct impact on us and actions for us to take.
    Ongoing uncertainty – she has provided reassurance, encouragement and some measure of stability.
    Next phase – she is beginning to move to advance communication about preparations and practical steps she is considering for when the school eventually reopens. She is anticipating and addressing parents’ concerns about the return.
    Return to school – she and her staff are now doing everything they can to keep the school running as normally as possible, in circumstances that are anything but normal. Regular communication has continued with updates on how things are going and what we as parents can do to help ensure our children can get the most from the education that is being provided.

  • Community.
  • Her message during lockdown was that we might not be physically together, but we were still a community and we would get through it together. The pastoral care team continued to provide mental health support and information remotely, which we were regularly reminded about. Words and actions match up so that we feel part of something bigger. Now that the young people are back in school, that sense of community continues.

    Some of the things that happen in school have been replaced with online versions, giving continuity and familiarity. For example, Hot Choc Friday emails continue to replace the in person sessions to recognise students and their achievements; heads of year are holding online assemblies; parent forums to discuss relevant topics are also now held online.

    What does it all mean?
    The overall impact of such an effective and skilful approach to communication is that I feel as informed as I can be, without being overwhelmed.

    I trust the head and her team and believe her when she says we will get through this together. I am full of admiration for them all – I genuinely don’t know how they do it!

    Until next time

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