Guest Blogger: Dr. William L. Heller, Using Data Program Director, Teaching Matters*
Summer has arrived, and the last of our current data institutes, like the school year itself, has come to an end. But as the participating data teams leave, carrying not a diploma but an action plan, they realize that their work is only just beginning. It is not a graduation; it is a commencement. And the first step in the journey ahead is to introduce the action plan they developed to the principal, administrators, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders in their school communities. This requires another planning document—a strategic communications plan, inviting others to invest in a shared vision for bringing the action plan to reality.
So…what are the elements of a good communications plan that will get others behind the action plan?
The anatomy of a good communications plan starts inside the head. Before presenting an action plan to colleagues, make sure you have a clear sense of the logic behind it. What data convinced you of the student learning problem the team uncovered? What in your investigations revealed the causes of that problem? What does research say is the most effective way to battle these causes? The more logical and evidence-based your chain of cause and effect is, the more confident you will be in your action plan, and the more persuasive you will be communicating it to your audiences.
However, it is just as important to appeal to their hearts if you want to have a lasting impact. Connect your plan to their hopes and aspirations. What is important to each of your audiences? How would they like to see themselves? How does your plan align with the school culture? If their participation is critical to the success of the plan, they should be made to feel like they are included as part of the solution, not as obstacles to be overcome. Another way to the hearts of your colleagues is through their stomachs. Providing refreshments at meetings not only keeps morale high, but it also sends an important message: we value you as fellow professionals, and we appreciate your time and participation.
In that spirit, it’s important to remember not to point the finger. The idea is to get buy-in for your plan, and if you start playing the blame game, you risk alienating the very people from whom you will need the most effort. Don’t ignore critical causes of your student learning problem, of course, but exercise diplomacy in how you phrase them. Instead of saying that “some teachers aren’t doing” a critical task, note instead that we have “a lack of consistency in the way we do” that task, or that there is “not enough emphasis on doing” that task school-wide. The purpose is to reverse harmful trends, not to cast blame for them.
Once the meetings are over, it’s time to put legs to your intentions. Don’t let your hard-earned action plan become merely a document gathering dust on a shelf. Collect data that confirms your plan is being implemented faithfully and is having the desired effects. Plan for regularly scheduled time to analyze this new data, and be prepared to adjust your plan if necessary.
The success or failure of an action plan can often depend on how it is initially rolled out. Spending some time over the summer considering a strategic communications plan for the fall can help you start the new year on the right foot!
*Teaching Matters is a non-profit organization that partners with educators to ensure that all students can succeed in the digital age. They are an official TERC Using Data partner organization, conducting the Using Data for Meaningful Change institute for New York City schools.