Communication or Miscommunication-
Sometimes It’s the Same Thing…
Communication. 13 letters that form one of our most important tasks as school leaders. If we do it right, we often don’t hear about it. If we do it wrong, we certainly hear about it. For the past two years, the Department of Health, Department of Education, parents, staff, and the community have sent emails, memos, Executive Orders and too many other documents to school leaders with amazing speed and, oftentimes, a lack of clarity. If you are like me, we’ve spent much valuable time trying to figure out what is really meant by many of the missives that we have received. A real Communication Quagmire.
As I reflected about my message to school leaders this month, I thought about one of the most urgent issues on our desks these days – the COVID-19 testing requirements. Months ago, I was delighted when I heard the Department of Health would be rolling out options for school districts to assist us with the COVID-19 testing requirements. One less thing to figure out. Wrong! While COVID-19 testing sounded likely a relatively simple record-keeping function for districts, it quickly descended into a morass of conflicting information, delayed memos, and, worse yet, no information. The end result of what can happen when trying to fit too much information into a very small hole in too little time…in other words, a Communication Quagmire.
I am writing this article on October 18, which as you know is the roll-out date for COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated staff. Two weeks ago, I had no information about the vendor assigned to our county. One week ago, I had no information on how the saliva test kits would be sent to my district so that we were ready for testing on October 18. Although I thought I communicated well with our vendor and that test kits would be sent to us in plenty of time prior to our testing date, I was wrong. In fact, the vendor and I completely miscommunicated. I realized this when the vendor said he would send the test kits to me by courier the day of our testing. What? After jumping up and down a bit (a technical term) my district’s test kits were delivered about 18 hours before roll-out of our testing. Really?
I predict that many of you have suffered through similar miscommunications regarding the COVID-19 testing protocol or other related mandates such as the on again/off again virtual option for instruction; QSAC, anyone?; Testing, testing, testing. And that is only the list this week. In other words, the Communication Quagmire is thriving.
I thought it might be helpful to share what school leaders have done to avoid a Communication Quagmire in their districts or how to rectify it if the Communication Quagmire happens despite their best efforts. I’ll start:
- Provide information well before it needs to be known and understood.
- Saying there is no information is far better than simply saying nothing.
- Write/speak the message clearly and simply. No complex sentence structure that leaves the audience wondering what is meant.
- Have others who do not know the message read it before distributing it. Does it make sense to them?
- When incorrect information is given (which will happen), own it.
- Repeat the message multiple times for saturation.
Now it’s your turn….What are some of your techniques for avoiding a Communication Quagmire? Please email NJASA Director of Communications Anne H. Gallagher at firstname.lastname@example.org your techniques.
Finally, with Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I wanted to share a personal Communication Quagmire that occurred in my family. I am not a cook. Everyone knows that I am not a cook. I do make one item, though, that is pretty good according to most of my family - cheesy mashed potatoes. They are gooey, highly caloric, not good for your cholesterol, and cheesy! Several years ago, when I was planning to make them for my family at Thanksgiving, my father forewarned me not to do so because my cousin did not like them. Thanksgiving came and went with no cheesy mashed potatoes. As my family was leaving that evening after dinner, my cousin turned to me and said that she had missed not having my cheesy mashed potatoes and asked if I would make them next Thanksgiving. Completely shocked, I told her that I purposely did not make them because my father said she didn’t like them! I then realized what had happened. My father did not like them and didn’t want to hurt my feelings so he put the burden on my cousin never thinking she would reveal it to me. This was a huge Communication Quagmire! It taught me the need to always say what is meant because creating a new reality never works. (P.S. If anyone wants my recipe, just ask!)
I hope you, your family, and friends enjoy the best of the Thanksgiving Holiday. You’ve earned it! During 2021, as I reflect on what I am grateful for, at the top of my list is my NJASA family of friends and colleagues. You are amazing and I learn from you every day. Happy Thanksgiving!
Dr. Janet L. Fike