School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leadership Challenge: Define and Communicate Your School’s Story

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 13, 2016 6 min read
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Teachers are known within their community. Reputations are built child to child, parent to parent, event to event. All of us know taxpayers who advocate for public employees to live in the districts and communities where they work. But, we also know how valuable a bit of privacy can be when grocery stores and doctor’s offices and restaurants become only an extension of the office for those who see us and want to talk to us or about us. In a majority of cases, teachers are part of the school community long before the leaders arrive, and remain long after leaders move on. But it is the responsibility of the school and district leaders, no matter the length of time in the district, to clarify, define or redefine the narrative, to create the lingering perception, and to influence the reputation of the school(s) in the community. In the best of cases, this joint effort of leaders and teachers is done so well that if and when the leader leaves, the system carries them forward to the new leader as he or she takes the helm. Extensive leader turnover complicates this process leaving the definition of the schools and their values to teachers and boards. Changing public institutions bound by regulation and tradition is difficult enough without a revolving door at the helm. So while leading schools and districts through a continuous change process, how does the narrative of the district get written and communicated? How does the story get told?

How Does a Reputation Begin?
How does a school and district gain its reputation in the first place? How long do they last and how fragile are they? The location of the district tells the first part of a story. If it is in a ‘good’ neighborhood, if a high percentage of students graduate and go to ‘good’ colleges, if teachers are known as challenging, supportive and involved, there is great story. If it is in a ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ neighborhood, if a high percentage of students drop out of high school, if turnover prevents relationships and positive reputations to develop, there is less appealing story. Real estate prices often correspond to these stories. Yet, schools and districts change and, in this century, an ongoing effort to effect change requires an accompanying change in the story that is connected to the district.

Managing the Message
This digital era offers opportunity for communicating change yet, the audience of your message is also

...going to post it on their walls with their own twist, rate it or comment on it, and maybe create links to it from their blogs, which range from slightly off-message to downright bizarre...we can no longer treat our audience as passive consumers of our marketing messages. They must be our partners (Sachs. pp. 19-20).

This is both good and challenging. The good is the community will help spread the message. The challenge is there will be twists and turns and distortions as the message gets passed along. But be clear, the narrative is important, its design essential, and while engaged in changing narratives, attention to the story and how it is told matters greatly.

A colleague recently shared a question about the reputation of her district. We’ll call it ‘Mayberry’. She was concerned that they had seen better days. In her district, they used to enjoy the comfort of being situated in the middle of strong middle class neighborhoods, with students who enjoyed learning and were engaged in activities. Happy days. Economic times changed, a major employer left the area, houses remained on the market, free and reduced lunch numbers rose, a more diverse population of students and families arrived and it seems the ‘happy days’ passed. Yet, a look at the numbers reveals the same graduation rate, same participation in activities rate, same attendance rates, same stable teaching faculty, more AP offerings, same mastery rates, same discipline numbers and a rise in student mobility. This is an example of what many schools are able to do...stay true to their story. With all the changes that took place over 25 years, they were able to maintain the markers that told the story of their success. Those who lived through all of those years, however, intuit the difference and changed the work they had to do to keep the story steady. Yet, this leader was wondering if steady was as good as it could be.

Creating a New Story
That is the hard work of educators, and it is mostly an untold one. If the story is a strong one and those within the school community remain true to it, it is the work of the school community to do what it takes in order to maintain the story, or reputation of the district. The moral of this story is the story/narrative is important. And leaders question and create it both.

So what of schools where the demand for fresh stories exist? What about those courageous schools that have taken on big changes, welcomed more diverse children, blended learning opportunities, trans- and inter-disciplinary learning, bringing business partners into the work of the school, empowering even the most disabled students with technology, radically changing the schedule, recognizing leaders throughout the system, abandoning grades and lifting up all? What about schools who have done this in the face of large turnover in faculty and leaders? How do schools frame a changing story?

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, when breaking into the competitive ice cream business with exotic, fancy names, knew something that school leaders can learn. According to Jonah Sachs in his book, Winning the Story Wars, Ben Cohen believed that sharing their values with their consumers was the hook upon the relationship between product and consumer is built.

If you can for a relationship with your customers based on shared values, that is the strongest possible bond you can form...but finding shared values means you have to have some values, they can’t be milquetoast, namby-pamby middle-of-the-road-cr--You need to stand for something, so customers who believe the same thing can glom onto your brand (Sachs. p. 139).

It may be as simple and as complex as that. In the case of ‘Mayberry’, the district was built by leaders with community ties, demonstrated values about students, academics, and success. It may not have been their larger community that needed a new story, it was those working within the school that were needing some renewed connection to the narrative. This presents, perhaps, a tipping point. The values remained, even though the communication and demonstration of those values became hidden behind the work of each day. So, the question for the leader was: how will we reenergize the values and what difference will that make for students who are in the system now?

Return to Values
So here is the gift these times of change and pressure bring: return to the values that brought each of you to the field and the work you have chosen and share them out loud in word and deed and with intention. Refresh the school community, inside and out, with your raison d'être and join together. No matter the changes, and of course they require communication and agreement, if their purpose is in the service of shared values then your story will be told by all, your reputation built and reinforced, and your community more whole. Who wouldn’t want that?

Sachs, J. (2012). Winning the Story Wars. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.Illustration by kchung courtesy of 123rf

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.