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How schools will reopen this fall remains in question. Navigating these uncertain times requires transformative school leadership skills. An experienced school leader suggests four pillars of effective leadership. 

Transitioning schools from a traditional setting to a remote setting back in March was not only a pandemic emergency, but also a complicated leadership challenge. Reopening schools in the fall will be more complicated due to the fragmentation that will exist from such an overwhelming diversity of needs amongst our students, families, teachers and staff. How will we lead? I urge school leaders to join me in focusing on four pillars for transformative school leadership: communication, transparency, trust, and relationships.

Four Pillars of School Leadership

Communication. One of the most common mistakes leaders make is that they assume communication has taken place because of what they have disseminated. We release messages on social media, our websites, to the newspapers and we have face-to-face conversations. Yet, we need to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Given our collective experience during the pandemic and our preparations for what lies ahead in the fall for  schools, we must recognize the importance not just of telling, but also of listening. Whether in a time of crisis or when “normal” is restored, leaders need to listen more and speak less. We need to recognize how important communication is in building lasting relationships, personally and professionally. Oprah says, “Great communication begins with connection.” Shockingly, many educational leaders over the past several months have forgotten this essential piece—the importance of relationships.

Steps to Optimize Communication:       

  • Communicate daily/weekly/monthly updates in the school or school district.
  • Develop an email listserve and send parents/guardians and members of the community simple newsletters about teaching and learning, areas of focus, positive recognitions. 
  • Facilitate monthly virtual town hall sessions using virtual technologies like Zoom to engage and inform parents, guardians and the community. 
  • Understand stakeholder preference when it comes to technologies and media outlets, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, radio and newspapers. Utilize a variety of channels to cast a wide net to share information.
  • Share plans before they are fully baked to ensure stakeholders have time to weigh in and can, thus, fully appreciate authentic communication efforts.

Transparency. No matter the situation or circumstance, transparency leads to support and commitment, and it strengthens relationships. Mother Theresa said it best, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Do it anyway.” Currently, across the nation, students, staff, parents and the community are hurting. In times of desperation, people want untarnished transparency, compassion and hope of a better tomorrow. I would argue that leaders do not have the luxury of keeping information locked away, not just during a pandemic or an emergency, but ever. While some laws forbid the sharing of certain information, there is plenty of information that can and should be shared. Organizational transformation is hard because change is hard. The difference between organizations that fail to change and those that change and thrive is effective communication. Aristotle said, “All communication must lead to change.” Change cannot happen if the information is filtered or withheld from those who can drive change, or who will be impacted by the change. 

Steps to Increase Transparency:

  • Be accessible to stakeholders, in public and at home, and respond to social media comments that are pertinent, relevant and sincere. Avoid replying to negative feedback, except to acknowledge their receipt.
  • Empower stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process as much as possible. Empowerment = transparency. 
  • Let stakeholders know you don’t have all the answers and keep them apprised if mistakes happen. Followers appreciate leaders who are human and convey a certain level of humility.
  • Utilize your district’s website as the center for information. Districts should post as much information as possible in an organized fashion. 

Trust. Trust can never be earned without communication and transparency. Followers are looking for leaders who inspire them to be better than themselves, but it starts with the leader nurturing a mutually trusting relationship. Trust inherently requires more than what we think. Lao Taz said, “He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted.” Leaders often fail to understand the connection between empowerment, engagement and trust. When we allow others to be leaders in the organization, engagement increases and trust is stronger within the organization for the leader and others. Trust does not occur spontaneously. Leaders must continuously seek opportunities to strengthen trust within the organization by developing a culture of interdependence through positive relationships. One doesn’t build trust during a crisis, but before one happens. The only way to meet the complexities of a crisis is by working together,  which requires mutual trust between all members of the team. 

Steps to Build Trust:

  • Be transparent; let people know when mistakes happen. Be open about decisions; embrace criticism to grow! 
  • Work to make your district or school a self-reporting organization. Create and utilize a culture of self-reporting to hold the organization accountable to the governing board, state education agency and the general public.
  • Be willing to roll up your sleeves to help; don’t just sit behind a desk or closed doors! Visibility is critical to trust. 

Relationships. For communication, transparency and trust to work, the leader must have established a positive relationship with students, teachers, staff, parents and community members. Why? It goes back to what people expect of their leaders: faith, aspiration, compassion, transparency and service. David Gergen, a former advisor to several presidents, said, “At the heart of leadership is the leader’s relationship with followers. People will entrust their hopes and dreams to another person only if they think the other is a reliable vessel.” Successfully adapting to change at the magnitude that every school experienced this past spring required an unprecedented level of trust. School and district leaders who had worked diligently on growing relationships before COVID-19 did experience success; however, those leaders who had not built a relationship with stakeholders experienced—and continue to experience—the most difficulties. 

Steps to Nurture Relationships: 

  • Utilize a diverse committee structure to help make decisions in the district. Ensure all stakeholders are represented and their voice is valued in the decision-making process. 
  • Be accessible to stakeholders virtually, in the community and even at home. Be empathetic to their concerns, needs and time. Yes, do house calls when parents/guardians or members of the community can’t come to you. 
  • Engage in as many face-to-face sit-down conversations with stakeholders; limit the use of phones and emails. Invite stakeholders to meet at their convenience. These intimate, face-to-face meetings show that you care and limit the possibility of comments being taken out of context. 
  • Appreciate your role as a leader in the context of the community. Tell people how you appreciate their work, support and trust in your ability to serve them. 

Final Thoughts

There is no magic formula for developing effective communication, transparency, trust and relationships. A cookie-cutter approach to any of these will appear superficial, unsympathetic and disconnected. Transformation is hard. Therefore, an authentic embrace of each pillar of transformative school leadership will make the process of effecting change less complicated and more rewarding to all that are involved. 

Brian Creasman

Dr. Brian Creasman’s Twitter profile says he has the best job in Kentucky! As superintendent of Fleming County Schools since 2014, he has the privilege of leading, learning and collaborating with students, staff, and the best community each day. Over his career, he has been fortunate to serve as a teacher, assistant principal, middle school principal, high school principal, and assistant superintendent. Recognized as a National Certified Superintendent by AASA, Brian's areas of interest include school and district transformation, teacher leadership, student voice, and empowering others to do BIG things for students. Brian is the 2020 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year and a nationally recognized author — having co-authored The Leader Within: Understanding and Empowering Teacher Leaders, Growing Leaders Within: A Process toward Teacher Leadership, Can Every School Succeed? Bending Constructs to Transform an American Icon, and ConnectED Leaders: Network and Amplify your Superintendency.