A School Leader’s Guide to Crisis Communication
In the COVID-19 era, information is changing every day and sometimes every hour. Leaders, teachers, support staff, and families are all scrambling to gather the most accurate information, and sometimes, information can get jumbled and opinions heated. With fear running rampant and safety at the forefront of everyone’s minds, communication is one of the most essential tools school leaders and staff have in the face of these chaotic times.
During my career, I faced the aftermath of September 11 and the shock and anguish after school shootings across the country. The stress of this pandemic reminds me of those events, and it particularly reminds me of one time when my own school faced a threatening situation. In this article, I’ll share how our school responded, and how good communication saw us through that difficult time.
How to Communicate as a School Leader
In my last year as a principal, a disgruntled parent brought family issues to my school, creating a true threat to our safety. Not only did the parent come onto school grounds, but he was also found to have an arsenal of guns at his home. As a result, we had to have police presence on school grounds for several weeks.
Communication from me as the school’s leader was critical. “Keep calm and carry on” was Great Britain’s motto during the World War II bombings, and that’s the philosophy leaders must follow even when they feel like the world is crumbling around them. I had to think of my different audiences: central office, teachers, support staff, students, and parents. How could I explain police presence without people becoming alarmed and running away with their own narratives?
Here are some things I learned through meeting with everyone who worked in my building about this issue:
- Share as many details as you can. In times of high stress, people are often fearful and have a lot of questions. They also tend to jump to the worst possible scenario when they don’t know something. So make sure to provide as much information as you can to help people feel like you’re not hiding anything.
- If you can’t share something, explain why. In my situation, I couldn’t divulge personal information about the family involved. However, I was clear and honest about why I couldn’t share certain information. Doing so helped prevent people from filling in inaccurate details.
- Create consistent messaging. More often than not, you won’t be the only one communicating about an issue. Teachers and support staff will be communicating with parents and students, and parents will be communicating with students and community members. To prevent rumors and panic from spreading, and to take stress off your staff, provide specific lines for them to repeat when inquiring minds dig for additional information.
- Be calm in words and body language. Never forget that nonverbal cues often speak louder than words. With every personal contact, every phone call, and every communication, I had to maintain a calm voice and also keep my facial expressions and body language under control.
As I was leading my school through this crisis, it didn’t matter that I was more scared than I had ever been in my career. My most important task was to stay steady and communicate as much as I could. When you’re a leader, people take cues from you. So stay calm, don’t react, and respond in thoughtful and clear ways. People will model after you.
Communication: There’s Never Too Much
When leaders don’t communicate clearly, people will fill in the gaps with their own opinions and draw their own conclusions with the little information they have, and then perceptions quickly become reality. For this reason, communication should be frequent, clear, and concise.
- Frequent: The most effective school leaders I’ve talk to are sending out daily communications during COVID-19. They make themselves available to answer questions and provide FAQs on district, school, and class websites.
- Clear: Make sure to make your communications available in different languages and in different formats (electronic, paper, and orally). The messages should contain exactly the same information so that everyone is on the same page and no one is confused. Confusion leads to worry and fear.
- Concise: As a leader, you should leave your opinion out of ALL communications. Stick to the facts and reassure your community that you will share all new information as you get it.
How Teachers Can Lead in the Classroom
As teachers, you are leaders in your classroom. How and what you communicate to your students and families is reflective of the school. That’s why it’s essential to listen to your leaders, follow their guidance, and be the voice of reason in your classroom.
I know that some leaders may not give you the support and information you need. If this is the case, find a colleague in the school or at the district level who can give you support and advice on how and what to communicate to your students and families. As with other issues in your field, you’ll do well if you follow the experts.
As teachers, you accept the role of ensuring the safety of your students, which includes their emotional well-being. During these uncertain times, it’s important to explicitly address the fears they may have about returning to the classroom or emotions related to online learning. For elementary classrooms, find stories to share that will lead to conversations about unsettling feelings and how to overcome those feelings.
At the middle and high school levels, find a time to have round-table discussions about how to interpret information, how to sift through the myths and facts, and how to interact in safe and healthy ways. As a teacher, you have a valuable opportunity to model and teach the calm so that all can carry on.
As we all navigate through these uncharted waters, educators are now frontline workers. You are caught in the middle of many divides: How can you teach your students well? What is safe and unsafe? Who is at risk? What if tomorrow is totally different than today?
As in all educational decisions, whether it is about how to teach a lesson, how to best reach our neediest students, or how to meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs, we must look to the facts, the research, and best practices. Armed with facts, we must communicate what we know, in detail, and communicate frequently.
Communication is the key to staying rational and informed.
For more in-depth strategies on how to open lines of communication and help your school community cope with trauma and hardships, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:
- Building Meaningful Partnerships: Connecting Students, Families, and Communities: Get concrete, actionable strategies for partnering with families, community organizations, and local businesses to foster meaningful educational experiences for students.
- Facilitating Discussions About Violence and Trauma in the Classroom (K–8 or 9–12): Trauma impacts students in more ways than we can see. Help students navigate difficult issues by teaching them how to engage in respectful, meaningful dialogue and creating a classroom environment that is supportive and responsive to all types of tragedy.
- Helping Students Overcome Trauma: Educators can provide the kind of support students need to transform from trauma victims to trauma survivors by helping students proactively deal with trauma. Learn strategies to help your school become trauma sensitive and a place of empowerment and outreach.
- Cultivating a Supportive Classroom Environment: Prioritizing Safe Learning: Create a positive, safe, and supportive classroom environment that will allow students to thrive mentally, emotionally, socially, and academically. In this course, you’ll learn how to help students self-identify and self-manage their emotions, develop social awareness, collaborate, and interact positively with others.
- A Year in the Life of a School Leader: A Roadmap to Success: Create a plan for a stress-free school year, including how to establish a vision and expectations at the beginning of the year, help teachers stay motivated around the holidays and state testing time, and create data-driven improvement plans over the summer.
- Teachers as Leaders: Sharpen your leadership skills and learn how to establish yourself as a leader in your school and district. Learn how to run effective meetings, engage colleagues in constructive dialogue, and implement practices to support retention, encourage professional development, and participate in school improvement efforts.
In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.
Lisa Sheehan has an undergraduate degree from Bellarmine University in art education and graduate degrees from the University of Louisville – Master of Education and Specialist in Education. Lisa taught art and in the regular classroom before moving into administration for 17 years. During her time as an administrator, Lisa was an instructional coordinator, gifted and talented coordinator, assistant principal, and building principal at Buckner Elementary School, in Oldham County, Kentucky. Lisa has been an adjunct professor for graduate classes at Bellarmine, undergraduate courses at University of Louisville, and served as a KTIP university resource teacher.