School & District Management Opinion

A Crisis Sows Confusion. How District Leaders Can Be Clear in Their Messaging

Choosing a go-to source of information is a good starting point
By Daniel R. Moirao — July 23, 2021 2 min read
A man with his head in a cloud.
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Almost without notice last year, educators did a 180 degree turn from teaching and learning to become health and safety facilitators. Who was prepared for this new role? Who had experiences on how to lead others through this pandemic?

What didn’t change was our communities’ expectation that we would ensure the safety of their children. Like never before, educators and administrators found themselves dependent on others to provide reliable, accurate information.

In our district, our first move was to find a reliable, accurate, timely go-to source of sound medical information based on science. Sources varied in credibility and accuracy, and much of the early advice during the pandemic was incomplete or conflicting. So, where could we turn? The local health director? Regional health offices? State health officials? National health sources?

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Choosing one wasn’t enough; we had to then do a critical analysis of each source for its track record with accuracy. What research did they rely on? Were they consistent in their premise and their messaging?

For our community, the director of health services in our county’s department of health provided current, local data regularly and consistently that was easily accessible and timely. Designated staff and I established a regular twice-monthly meeting with that office, along with as-needed check-ins, to serve as our school district’s source for guidance.

With our go-to source in hand, we communicated with our school community frequently, being careful to use clear and consistent messaging and vocabulary. We adopted a common vocabulary both in our school system and in the larger community. And as we prepared each missive, we asked ourselves: Why are we sharing this information now? And why does our school community need to hear it from us?

Perhaps this communication approach sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious. But the pandemic has demanded all of us stay accurately informed, while needing to learn a whole new language and startling new routines. The wrong words can clash with what we believe to be right. For example, we often hear our students have suffered a “learning loss.” What if we instead focused on “accelerating learning” for students?

When a district doesn’t provide clear and consistent communication in the midst of a crisis, a school community will create its own stories. We all seek patterns to make sense of a world that feels senseless. What story do you want your community to believe as you care for your students and staff? Who do you want to write your school’s or district’s story?

Words have the power to either instill fear and panic or to calm anxieties and help a community stay better informed and safer. How we communicate can help our community create the story they will use to move forward. It begins with finding a go-to source of accurate information and then communicating that information with purpose.

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