In the last post, I introduced the problem of communication and my desire that our schol do a better job of it. I am looking forward to the introduction of individual teacher blogs on our web site this fall. Now, to continue with my thoughts and concerns about how we communicate:
One major tool for electronic communication is our web-based student data portal, HeadMaster Online. We have been using this tool for three years now and are familiar with its strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect electron solution for managing and sharing student data. However, HeadMaster provides our school with a management system which allows us to keep track of, record, edit, and store all of our students’ demographic and academic data in a web-based environment which offers a high level of security. It also allows us to communicate salient information with parents through the HM Online parent portal, such as grades and assignments.
When we rolled out HM Online a few years back, I admit that we probably over- stressed the advantages of having homework assignments posted online so that parents could double check what their children’s teachers had assigned. However, those assignments are uploaded to HM Online from teachers’ weekly lesson plans file electronically each Monday morning, and the nature of good teaching must allow for some flexibility. That means teachers may “tweak” their assignments on a daily basis depending upon the pace of their lessons, and they may or may not remember to revise their online lesson plans accordingly. This has resulted in some confusion from time to time. To resolve discrepancies which may occur, for the past year or so we have been stressing that the student’s personal assignment book, which should be a reflection of what the teachers actually assign, is the final word. This places the responsibility for keeping accurate track of assignments on the students.
As most of our students and parents are aware, Westlake does participate in social media primarily as a means of creating interest and raising awareness. When things are happening at the school—and there is usually something interesting going on—one of the ways we broadcast that information widely is through FaceBook and Twitter. We realize that social media is highly volatile in the sense that it has a very short life. If a story is not seen within a few hours, or a day at the most, it will fall off most users’ feeds. Therefore, we don’t rely on those outlets for important information. We usually use social media to drive users to our web site for more facts.
Another important tool for communication, our annual parent survey, gives us a great deal of feedback from our families about how we are doing and where we should focus our attention. This past spring we carefully revised our survey tool to allow us to get a better picture of our school, especially of our faculty and staff. The number of questions for each faculty & staff was expanded, and every item referenced a specific area on our faculty/staff evaluation rubric, allowing us to incorporate parents’ assessments along with supervisors’ on performance reviews.
For the first time last spring we surveyed our secondary students concerning their teachers as well. Although individual teachers had used their own surveys in the past, this one, again, was tied to the evaluation rubrics. Both the student and the parent surveys included free-response questions.
I shared the results of the surveys with the faculty and staff individually so they could have a realistic picture of how they are perceived by their own constituencies. The results were incorporated into their annual performance reviews. I then developed summaries and shared them with the Board, which revealed broad areas of strengths and weaknesses among our teachers.
Communication—A Two-Way Street
In a recent committee meeting, one of our parents remarked that a significant challenge for us is that our culture is in information overload. Like most people, we tend to expect that all important information will automatically come directly to us, and if we are distracted at the moment and not ready to receive it, we are liable to miss it. Too often, we are disturbed to find out important information too late or not at all when, if we had been paying attention, we likely would have gotten it the first time around.
Knowing this situation, on our part here at WCA, we must seek as many ways as possible to make important communication accessible to our families, repeating it at different times and in different forms. However, there is a commensurate responsibility on each of us as information receivers to be good listeners. When information comes out concerning our children’s school, we should take time to read it, understand it, and take appropriate note. If our children are involved in special activities such as sports or music groups, let us press through on communication by checking and double checking information sources such as emails, the web site, the calendar, etc. None us should ever feel timid about jotting an email or a text message to an event leader to get accurate information. For our part at school, I will lead our staff in pledging to be as transparent, courteous, and patient as possible so that our community is a happy one in which information flows freely.
To that end, I remain open to practical ideas for improving communication. Email me, come see me, or respond to this post now if you like.