School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders

Use descriptive language, be proactive and responsive, and more
By Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu — June 20, 2024 5 min read
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With national politics dominating the discourse in education, it can be challenging for leaders to discern the true desires and concerns of their local communities. Politically savvy education leaders must regularly communicate what they are doing—and why—in plain language, while listening to and learning from more than the loudest voices. The goal is to stay focused on the well-being and academic success of every child.

Here are a few resources we’ve compiled in our work with the Collaborative on Political Leadership in the Superintendency that can support education leaders in communicating with their communities.

Use Descriptive Language

Depending on your context, education leaders should consider using more descriptive language that builds a shared understanding of district priorities while avoiding triggering acronyms like “DEI,” “SEL,” and “CRT” that can distract from the work. Despite differences of opinion that fall along political party lines, surveys like this Rossier poll, show that many Americans don’t actually know enough about what is being taught in schools, which points to the need for proactive and clear messaging. There are also topics that most believe should be taught in schools, despite their political affiliations, like the contributions of the Founding Fathers, the contributions of women and people of color, patriotism, the history of slavery, racial inequality, and the environment. Parents want their children to learn to be critical thinkers. The implications are to communicate better about what is really happening in school, drawing on shared values and interests where local community members can find common ground.

Messaging Guidance

In this piece, the Campaign for Our Shared Future offers tips on messaging with a focus on how to engage in dialogue about educational equity without escalating emotions, fueling misinformation, or compromising the dignity of any child. The idea here is that education leaders need to use simple language, avoiding jargon or the repetition of trigger words.

Opportunity to Learn, Responsibility to Lead (Report)

This report from the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program outlines a set of bipartisan principles for improving public education and student experience in schools. By drawing on shared values, leaders can communicate in a way that is critical for avoiding politically charged conflict without tamping down equity-focused efforts.

Navigating Tough Conversations (Tip Sheet)

Leading Now, a professional leadership learning organization, offers techniques for building common ground, de-escalation, and listening deeply with understanding and respect. One of the sections of the tip sheet focuses on maintaining curiosity, including this important push: “Realize that you don’t have moral certitude. People are shaped by the collection of their lived experiences and so perspectives will vary.” The idea here is not to get caught in “us” vs. “them.”

Be Proactive and Responsive

Politically savvy education leaders take a strategic approach to communications that includes both proactive and responsive strategies. Proactive messaging helps to build trust with community members, and responsive communication helps to maintain trust when difficult situations arise. Ultimately, a proactive approach coupled with intentional responses can help school and district leaders shape their narratives and express care and concern.

Public-Engagement Approaches (Tip Sheet)

In this resource, Leading Now outlines proactive and responsive communication tips. It starts, however, with emphasizing how important it is for education leaders to shape their personal narratives (why they do the work they do) and regularly share versions of that narrative to connect with others.

AASA’s Communications and Public Relations Resources

This list of communications resources compiled by the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, includes a short piece on when to share one’s opinion on issues that are not directly about schooling. The decision on whether to make public statements about national or global tragedies, for example, can be a difficult one. It often comes down to discerning the extent to which the issue directly affects local students and their families. If making a statement increases the likelihood that students will feel safe to learn, then it is worth doing, and the leader should say so.

Responding to Hate and Bias at School (Guide)

This Learning for Justice guide is designed to support school administrators in designing plans and protocols to respond to incidents of hate and bias. The guide is organized into three sections that include proactive and responsive communication strategies: before a crisis occurs, when there’s a crisis, and after the worst is over. It is crucial to have a crisis plan in place given that these incidents seem to be occurring with more frequency iven that emergencies usually arise without warning.

Leverage Social Media Strategically

Although social media is where rumors abound, school and district leaders can leverage this medium to learn about political issues that are front-of-mind for community members. Today, regular, positive, and proactive use of social media must be a key component of any leader’s communications strategy.

Social Media Best Practices (Tip Sheet)

This Leading Now resource provides tips on using social media to build community support. Social media best practices include developing a strategy, choosing channels that are relevant to your community, intentionally posting content, and navigating comments. Scanning social media regularly (or assigning team members to do it) can help a leader stay ahead of controversy that may surface in classrooms, schools, and board rooms.

Education leaders and communications departments can also use this resource to determine what content does and does not belong on social media. As this resource highlights, “by effectively leveraging social media, the entire community becomes empowered to be ambassadors for their school system.”

For more resources, feel free to check out our website, at cpl-s.com.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays that seeks to offer guidance to education leaders on how to effectively navigate political divisiveness while also supporting all students. Read the first and second essays in the series.

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