Most boards with whom we work mention that they often hear criticism of the school’s communications with parents. What do they mean by that? As it turns out, anything and everything! There is not enough communication. There is too much communication. Parents do not read the communication.
But often what parents mean is that they have a complaint about some specific incident, course, sport or teacher and they are not happy about how it was handled. It then comes under their definition of a “communications issue.” Often one parent’s problem teacher is another parent’s excellent teacher. One parent complains about the 6th grade homework load being overwhelming while another parent at the same grade level thinks that homework required is too easy and/or nonexistent.
Someone saying that “my school does not listen to me” may simply mean that the school listened and heard but did not agree with the comment or criticism and failed to respond.
From a governance point of view, the potentially dangerous issue is how many well-intentioned board members ask this Consultant, “How do we stay in touch with parents and how do we know what they want and need and how they are feeling?” or “How can we assess faculty morale which we hear is slipping?” or “How do we handle complaints from parents who tell us that the board needs to be more involved and engaged with parents?” or “When will the board offer a portal for direct communication between the parents and the board?”
Recently, many boards have told this Consultant about how they think they should respond to constituent requests for information. They have recommended establishing board subcommittees such as “Teacher Culture and Improvement”, “Community Relations”, etc. Unfortunately such subcommittees intrude upon the head of school’s turf and they are not advisable from a governance perspective.
What Is the Safest and Most Helpful Mode of Parent Communication?
Current parents dominate most independent and international day school boards. They are the most generous, loyal, passionate, committed but at the same time, “dangerous” board members. Why? Because more often than not, everything little Johnny says when he comes home may eventually make its way into the board room. Many parent board members see themselves as the voice of the parent body. This behavior can become, and should be, very worrisome.
At any given time, board members should not represent present parents or any other constituency. Board members represent the mission. A vision only of the present and through the lens of current parents’ opinions is very short-sighted and may derail healthy long range strategic planning.
This is not to say that the head and administration should not know and care about what parents think and how they feel. It is management’s job to create opportunities for parent listening sessions in appropriate settings and for the appropriate audience size, NOT in-person or Zoom town meetings or any large group setting where a minority of loud angry voices may predominates.
One client School Board was hearing from parents who were critical of the Head. The Head had two more years remaining on his contract. The Board felt that it needed to do a parent opinion/school climate survey because parents complained to Board Members that they were not being heard. The Board asked our Firm to do this. We declined because conducting such a survey in May is typically bad timing since parents tend to be more tired and unhappier towards the end of the school year, and the responses can be skewed towards the negative.
Another Firm conducted the survey but only 25% of the parent body responded. The Board not only published that data but acted upon the negative feedback from the survey. They fired the Head, i.e. they bought out the last year of his contract.
What are the lessons to be learned here? First never undertake a parent opinion or school climate survey of parents unless you observe the following guidelines:
- Never do it in the winter or spring, but in the fall months.
- Never hire a school-related family or firm to do this work.
- Never publish the raw data, only the ratings.
- Never agree to publish any results unless at least two-thirds of the parent body responds.
- In the case of the School above, the 75% of the parents who did not answer the survey and were basically happy campers, rose up in anger, demanded the resignation of the entire Board, replaced that Board and hired back the Head who had just been fired.
Again, appropriate communications are key. Inappropriate communications can have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.
A very good idea, which is a significant investment of a head’s time but pays off well in good will, is to hold a series of grade-level evening “coffees” that the head hosts and the parents association sponsors every fall. It is important that these not occur in the morning, which excludes most working parents, and not at school, but in comfortable parent homes. These can be held virtually now.
For example, a 5th grade coffee might include a 7:30 to 9:00pm meeting when in the first 30 minutes the head, the primary or middle school head and perhaps one or two teachers speak. The second hour is a listening exercise for the head to hear parent questions and views.
The cardinal rule of these meetings is that no one may criticize any person by name or refer to a position that is obviously attributable to a specific individual. If the head hears negative comments or concerns, he or she might say:
- “I have not heard that before. Thank you. I will look into it.”
- “I have heard that before and we are working on it and will get back to you.”
- “That criticism is not grounded in facts. Please allow me to give you more information.”
The head cannot be defensive but should address the questions. If the head promises a response, he or she must respond promptly or else risks a loss of credibility.
It is always preferable to start these fall coffees with the transition grades i.e., Pre K, K, 5th, 6th, 8t and 9th as well as 12th grade due to college stress. That is, start with the grades where parents’ anxieties seem to be the most obvious. If you do this, you can increase retention.
These small meetings have the following benefits:
- The head begins to learn parent first names and styles. Acknowledging parents by name builds enormous political capital.
- Heads can hear the hoof beats of concerns before they become drumbeats of significant discontent.
- Parents are more likely to follow proper channels of communication. Instead of using social media and car pool gossip to air their concerns, they may instead reach out first to the head or division head to handle them as they should.
There is an entire science devoted to communications. Strategies recommended are mostly proactive not reactive.
The bottom line is that the Board represents only the mission. Great schools have long term board members, long term chairs and long term heads leaving long term healthy legacies and not messy constant searches, transitions, and mission confusion.