Lesson 1: Be Strategic, Prioritize AudiencesThe reforms these organizations are undertaking affect all aspects of teaching and learning: defining what effective teaching looks like and how it can be fairly measured, rethinking the roles of principal and teacher leadership, redesigning professional development to help teachers strengthen their craft, and reallocating resources to accomplish these goals. The magnitude and complexity of these changes require clear communications so that everyone is on the same page — understanding what is changing, why, how, and when — and so that the district can continue to improve.
Communications resources are scarce, so establishing priorities is essential. Plus, different stakeholders need different information at different times. That requires thinking strategically about communications.
With some exceptions, most of the school systems featured in this guide started by focusing on principals and teachers for obvious reasons: They are most directly affected by the changes in policies and practices, and they are the ones responsible for implementing them.
Having a strategic communications plan allowed these districts to set priorities, “play offense,” target resources, and keep everyone on the same page about what mattered most and who was responsible for what. Having educator-led design teams helped shape the communications plan at the front end and provided a built-in mechanism for testing effective strategies and messages along the way, allowing for revisions as necessary.
Examples from the Field:Hillsborough County Public Schools (FL)
This summary highlights the evolving strategic communications priorities between September 2010, when the new teacher evaluation was introduced, and April 2012. When the evaluation was created, the priorities were to support large and small meetings with teachers and train principals. The central themes focused on offering support, getting input, and making improvements.
When the new teacher evaluation scores were released a year later, the communications shifted to explaining the scores to teachers, managing expectations, and avoiding “flaming arrows” since teachers were used to a more generous scoring rubric that made earning high scores easier. Plus, to help combat rumors and misinformation and ensure that parents and others had enough information to become advocates, the district expanded its external focus by working with the county’s PTA (see Lesson 11) and other community groups.
By 2012, the focus had shifted internally again to support the district’s robust new professional development offerings.
Upcoming milestones from October 2012 through 2013 continue to tailor strategies to audiences and try to anticipate the key questions and potential challenges. By being proactive, Hillsborough can make sure stakeholders have the information they need in a timely way.
Denver Public Schools (DPS)
This 2011–12 communications and teacher engagement plan was designed to build teacher understanding and support for DPS’ new classroom evaluation and feedback tool: Leading Effective Academic Practice (LEAP). The plan was used internally to guide communications efforts. It was developed based on extensive conversations with central office stakeholders and educators. The overarching goal is stated succinctly:
“Key to successful implementation of LEAP in 2012-13 is for DPS educators to believe that LEAP is a fair and supportive evaluation system. We must work to build this trust and belief throughout the 2011-12 pilot by providing timely and authentic communication to teachers and principals as well as ensure that trusted feedback channels are in place throughout the 2011-12 LEAP. Teachers and principals must feel confident that they have a voice in this aspect of the Empowering Excellent Educators work at every step of development and implementation.”
The 10-page plan, plus an additional 10 pages of messaging advice, includes a two-page situation analysis, five goals (with accompanying tactics), six key communications milestones and metrics, and nine key strategies. Audiences are segmented into internal (10 groups from principals and pilot schools to the union and students) and external (four groups from parents to political leaders). And key communications vehicles are clustered into five categories: people, emails, e-newsletters, events, and online.
The plan graphically describes the mix of one-way and two-way communications.A separate, earlier plan usefully lays out a week-by-week communications timeline for building the support of at least 80 percent of teachers to participate in the LEAP pilot program. They succeeded.
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