Virtually every organization recommends encouraging principals and teachers to act as key communicators. They are the most knowledgeable and the most credible resources. Research by The Winston Group confirms that teachers trust information from their principals and most want to hear from them about these issues. And multiple surveys over the years confirm that teachers are more effective communicators with parents than school boards, superintendents, other administrators, or the media are.
"Our teachers have been instrumental at all stages of LEAP [Leading Effective Academic Practice] development and rollout, from helping to generate an opt-in vote of 94 percent participation in 2012-13 to sharing their experience with school board members at every board meeting."
— Jennifer Stern (Denver Public Schools)
"Teachers have grown cynical about reform — they feel attacked at local and national levels and see the effectiveness conversation as yet another manifestation of that negativism. Adding to that, our urban school district is consolidating with the county, which is controversial and stressful. We needed proxies to help explain all the changes and set them in a positive light."
— Diane Terrell (Memphis City Schools)
Teachers can be reluctant ambassadors. Sometimes the most effective teachers are educational leaders who believe in the work and change but are not necessarily comfortable with putting themselves out there. Districts have realized that they need to build leadership capacity within their organizations so that these teachers become more vocal proponents for the work. Partly in response, the Green Dot (CA) public charter school network is strengthening its teacher leadership program, hoping to create pride and confidence in different leadership roles, including communications.
"The additional responsibility and recognition
made teachers feel really special, but some felt uncomfortable being spokespeople and wanted more training before getting in front of their peers."
— Angela King Smith (Atlanta Public Schools)
Stipends might not be enough of an incentive. Memphis had mixed success getting broad participation in its initial teacher ambassador program, which offered stipends, so it is now shifting participation to teacher leaders only, with extensive professional development a key incentive (see below).
Make sure your ambassadors are prepared with timely, accurate, and relevant information. Prince George’s County (MD) says its communications got ahead of the program reality in 2011. The district had a good website to explain the big picture and program goals to multiple stakeholders but was unable to provide the level of detail that could have helped teachers and administrators understand the full implications on their workload.
"In any communications strategy, timing and sequencing are critical and can be the difference between success and failure. You want to ensure your communication does not get lost in the countless messages that teachers and principals receive on a daily basis. The communications strategy must be embedded into the everyday life of the school district."
— Briant Coleman (Prince George's County Public Schools)
Memphis City Schools
The College-Ready Promise (TCRP)
Aspire Public Schools, the California-based nonprofit public charter management organization that is a member of the TCRP consortium, uses principal meetings to share information and train principals as communicators. Then it provides PowerPoint presentations and other tools they can use to train staff in their own building. James Gallagher, director of instructional effectiveness and growth, notes that it is hard to fully educate principals on complicated issues, such as student growth percentiles, in a single session, so he often presents or co-presents with the school leader.
Green Dot, also a member of TCRP, has a site liaison on all campuses who leads monthly meetings and helps deliver professional development, sometimes side-by-side with administrators.
Atlanta Public Schools
In year 1, about 100 ambassadors (principals and teachers of the year at each school) served as key advisers and communicators. Principals took the lead in year 2, partly because many teachers were uncomfortable getting in front of their colleagues (see above). Principals receive a detailed toolkit with talking points, FAQs, a link to the Effective Teaching in Every Classroom microsite, a three-minute video, and an immediate online evaluation survey for feedback on the training, plus letters to solicit and then congratulate teacher of the year ambassadors.
Denver Public Schools (DPS)
During one-week workshops, Denver trained 500 teacher leaders and principals in summer 2011 and 800 in 2012, the increase driven largely by the addition of teacher leaders focused on the new standards. The first summer training focused on the Framework for Effective Teaching and ensured that teachers and school leaders had a strong common understanding of what effective instruction looked like in Denver. DPS provided the educators with basic information — videos explaining the Leading Effective Academic Practice (LEAP) system and individual measures, access to a comprehensive website, newsletters, and interactive exercises to experience the framework. School teams were encouraged to customize the information.
The most recent training emphasized the relationship among the district’s three key initiatives: rollout of the new academic standards, improving the achievement of English language learners, and implementing the new teacher evaluation and support system.
"For us, it's about distributed leadership, not one size fits all. Schools had two days of paid planning time to customize the training tools we gave them. Teacher leaders delivered the bulk of the content to their colleagues and really took ownership of ensuring a smooth rollout of the framework and LEAP."
— Jennifer Stern (Denver Public Schools)
Hillsborough County Public Schools (FL)
The district created a speakers bureau in year 1, featuring 10 teachers who were given additional information and communications training. In 2011–12, each school had Empowering Effective Teachers liaisons, responsible for two-way communications: listening, getting feedback, and sharing consistent information. Principals selected participants, who had to be respected by colleagues and willing to support changes. The district’s communications team has been meeting with all of them monthly. A two-page handout explains expectations for the liaison.
Pittsburgh Public Schools
The district has used several mechanisms to directly engage teachers. In year 1, it hired a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers’ executive committee to serve as a liaison from central office to the field. Since then, teachers have been front-line communicators in a couple of ways: serving on various implementation work groups and as Teaching and Learning Environment liaisons. These school-based liaisons have played a key role in distributing the annual working conditions surveys and working with principals to analyze results and incorporate them into each school’s improvement plans. The job description spells out the responsibilities, time commitment, and compensation. Communications Coordinator Susan Chersky says the liaisons have been critical in building educator understanding and support: “We know that teachers trust other teachers.”