Why the Best Leaders Are Good Listeners

How authentic communication can build trust between school districts and communities
Suhail Farooqui

When technology creates a problem, the antidote is never far behind. It’s a two-step process: question and answer. Seems simple, right? For schools, technology is a blessing and a curse. The answer to everything, and the cause of countless headaches. Through the early part of the 21st century, we’ve used technology to assess problems, deliver solutions, and effectively measure success. This innovative, but simple process is at the heart of everything we do. But what happens when there are too many questions and not enough answers? Or when answers are provided, but nobody is listening?

Humans build trust through communication and the ability to ask questions. Technology has created more lines of communication than ever imagined, and schools especially are having a difficult time keeping up. People’s expectations have gotten ahead of the system’s capacity to manage and handle them. Eventually, the system will right itself, and things will even out. But we’re not there yet.

Change begets change

The fact is classrooms aren’t the same as they were when parents and community members were earning their educations. Major changes to technology, teaching, and new concepts, such as project-based learning, have made parents and community members apprehensive and untrusting of an education system that is unrecognizable from the one they remember. So, how do we rebuild that trust? How do we create the kind of familiarity, understanding, and comfort that leads to more collaborative decision-making?

When I ask these questions of administrators, the response is often predictable, “We need to engage our communities.” That seems like a reasonable response, but it’s not accurate. What schools must do is make it easier for communities to engage with them. The words are subtle, but the difference is enormous.

Most schools are great at outbound communication. For example, I have a six-year-old and I get more e-mails from her school than I have time to read. If you’re a parent, you can relate. Though outbound communication is expected, it hardly matters. What is important is that when I make a phone call, send an e-mail, or reach out to my child’s school district with a vital question that I get a response. Community members often engage with school districts when they want to, not when the school district wants them to.

Engagement made easier

Modern technology provides school systems the ability to invite feedback from every member of their school community. The easier school districts can make it for community members to share their input, the more teachers and administrators can learn about their community. To truly learn requires the ability to listen with authenticity, acknowledge what you heard, and to deliver a timely and thoughtful response.

When I talk to school superintendents about this idea, they often come back and ask, “If I respond to every e-mail, phone call, and message I get from a concerned community member, when will I do my work?” To that, my response is simple. That is the foundation of your work.

The first job of every school system is to earn the trust of the people whose lives are touched by its decisions. If trust isn’t earned, everything the school system does will prove difficult, counterproductive, and destructive. Trust in any situation is earned by open and honest communication.

Opportunities to earn that trust happen everywhere, all the time. Data show that in a school of 10,000 students, there might be 100 key communicators whose responses over time define and shape public perception of the school system. Everyday responses from these key communicators mold the brand, or reputation, of the school and affect how the community feels about the system as a whole. As community members reach out to your school district, you have a responsibility to answer their questions, to put their minds at ease, and build trust. The reputation of your school depends on it.

Suhail is a former physicist turned education advocate and Founder/CEO of K12 Insight. He’s on a mission to rebuild public trust in America’s K-12 schools by helping educators build stronger relationships with parents, teachers, students, and staff.

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