Superintendents Didn’t Go to School for This: On-the-Job Training for Communication Challenges⁉

Superintendents Didn’t Go to School for This: On-the-Job Training for Communication Challenges⁉

The path to the superintendent’s seat draws on many skills, including a personal communication style. However, having the gift of gab or the ability to connect with others may no longer be sufficient when it comes to seeking engagement with one’s community. Intentional work must be done to improve communication outcomes. 

“We’re not trained, as superintendents, to be able to do things like marketing, for example,” said LK Monroe, CEO of Teamed Up for Good, a social purpose corporation focused on building stronger communities through education, arts, and athletics. “You do get training in your superintendent’s training, usually about crisis communication, but it’s not something that comes through your education training.” 

Monroe would know. She served as school superintendent for nearly a decade. Like her, most in the superintendent’s seat have to rely on on-the-job learning regarding communications. While superintendents receive crucial instruction on various aspects of educational leadership, effective communication strategies often fall outside the scope of their formal training.

However, their role’s broader and ongoing communication needs, such as marketing and strategic messaging, often require experiential learning. As they lead their institutions through diverse challenges, superintendents gradually hone their communication prowess through real-world experiences.

Does anyone remember the pandemic? Nobody had that one in their textbook. How can one overcome this lack of formalized training for the benefit of school-to-home communications?

Education, as a profession, is laudable for the ability to provide formal and informal opportunities to learn. Most superintendents have the cell phone numbers of peers readily available. Which ones would you call in case of an emergency? Who’s seen the crisis before and can offer perspective? There really is no need to suffer in silence.

Beyond superintendent colleagues, there are others to lean on for support and advice. A key benefit of working with communication professionals is the expertise they bring to the table, either through their educational background or professional learning in this arena. Even if you have received your own crisis communications training, school PR professionals and crisis experts have the ability to examine the issue at hand from a different perspective, consider your district’s objectives and develop a plan to meet the needs of your stakeholders. A skilled adviser will provide you with an unvarnished assessment of the situation and how best to handle it using effective communication strategies rather than gut intuition.

Monroe remembers communicating as a school leader as being like a minefield. The dynamic nature of interactions with various stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, and the community at large, demands adaptability and finesse. In Monroe’s experience, “small c communications” are always happening, and keeping a thumb on them is essential.

District Website as Vital Hub

She says your district website can be a vital hub and an extension of leadership vision. Rather than a “mere checkbox or an afterthought,” Monroe stresses that your website should be viewed as a cornerstone for disseminating information and engaging with stakeholders.

“If your strategic plan is not informing what you say on your job and how you’re showing that, then you need to strengthen that linkage (on the website),” Monroe argues. 

Five Tips for Strengthening the Linkage:

  1. Ensure your district’s focus can be easily found— in three mouse clicks or less. If you, as the author, can’t find it, neither can your community.
  2. Show, don’t tell, your mission, vision, or focus. Families, staff members, and prospective employees need to see (read: in pictures or through video) the evidence of the aspirations of students in your district. Can others see how you are living your mission to make the connection to what you are saying about the work and how it is being done?
  3. Understand that communication is a two-way street. Are there avenues for your community to provide feedback about the work your district is doing? Remember, not all feedback is negative. Are you providing a place where people in your community can offer validation for the work you are doing as well? Make it easy for them to do so!
  4. Amplify these messages in your other communication channels, like newsletters, public meetings, and social media. Make sure that no matter where someone finds information about your district, they get the same impression about who your district is and what drives your work. 
  5. Do this work consistently throughout the school year.

Whether your district has someone working as a full-time communication professional or not, these five concepts will help you make your mission more relevant and memorable to your community. These concepts are a great conversation starter for the person who manages the district’s website and provides direction to this individual in the year ahead. 

While a superintendent may not have gone to school for this, it is imperative that they seek professional learning networks to continuously learn and ensure that their district website allows stakeholders to understand what their leadership is doing to improve the lives of students and employees.