Have you ever analyzed what it is about great books or movies that make them moving or memorable? You know, the ones you think about for days after you’ve finished them? If you’re like me, did you wish the book would never end because you loved having those characters in your life? Or, did you watch the movie three times and discover something new each time?
The reason these stories are so compelling is that, as humans, our brain loves a story. It is the natural way our mind works. Whenever we receive disparate bits of information, our brain gets busy turning information into a story because it is how our mind makes sense of information.
There is also another aspect of the well-told story that attracts us. It is our intuitive identification with the story’s protagonist (hero). We vicariously live through their experiences, learn with them, experience joy, terror, or bravery with them, but without the consequence of death or pain or other experiences our hero endures.
Are you or your school leaders reluctant heroes?
One of the compelling aspects of great stories is what writers and directors call the story arc. The story or narrative arc is about a reluctant hero who is challenged to solve a problem to get what she wants. The next stage in the arc is our hero trying to achieve those wants, but failing each time. Finally, at least for the timeless stories, our hero is forced to realize that what she wants isn’t what she needs. If our hero is a true hero, she will accept this significant change and go after the need instead of the want, recognizing it as a better long-term solution to all her problems. The hero’s character evolves and improves. That is one reason you know a hero from a villain; the villain will never change.
This is a common dilemma in K–12 education today. Many school leaders are focused on maintaining the status quo (as the reluctant hero) because they believe they know what they want and those wants, when satisfied, will solve all their problems. They don’t recognize that meeting their needs provides longer-term and more rewarding results.
Often this belief is based on “what others are doing.” However, doing the same thing we’ve always done (or what our peers have always done) won’t bring about change and is also the definition of insanity. Change is hard. Taking risks is hard. Causing disruption is hard. But improvements can’t happen in the status quo.
What are your wants versus needs?
Have you ever seen the video called “It isn’t about the nail”? If not, check it out. The video’s purpose, while directed at communication challenges (arguably between males and females), is a hysterical clip about what I’m describing here about wants and needs.
In the video example, our troubled young woman is trying hard to express her “wants,” but her companion is trying to tell her about needs instead. If she’d only address her needs, it would take care of her wants. But alas, she is committed to having her wants heard at this point.
Of course, there is a time and place to vent about our wants. Been there; done that. Just ask my husband! However, this article isn’t one of those times.
So, what are the typical “wants” for many K–12 school leaders? Most of us would agree that we want:
- Students to reach their learning potential
- Parents to value and appreciate our school’s contributions
- Communities that support our work
- A staff who trusts its leaders; parents who trust their teachers
- Publics who respect our profession and value our contributions to society (and pay us accordingly)
What’s the nail? It is all the things preventing us from getting what we want. Often, most of the things we want, or think we want, we believe are outside of our control.
- We want parents to support us so we can educate their children. But, we can’t force them to engage, even though we know it will help their children succeed.
- We want to be treated with respect because we know those who are respected have more influence (in areas like laws, accountability, public support, standards, and more). However, we can’t demand respect, and our side of the story seldom gets told.
- We want to be trusted, but influences outside of our control can erode that trust (i.e., poor examples from others get shouted about in the media and become accepted stereotypes, disengaged parents who do not carry their half of the load and who undermine our efforts, mandates and bureaucracy that make getting the job done even more challenging)
So, we focus instead on the nail. We talk about the nail. We complain about the nail. A lot.
What is the alternative, you ask? When you’re tired of venting, it might be time to focus on needs instead.
What are our needs and how are they fulfilled?
We need to focus on the areas within our control. What are those?
- We need to earn trust and respect. Complaining we don’t have it already (even when we deserve it) is just focusing on the nail. We need to take the friggin’ nail out of our head and deal with the problem, which is our failure to earn trust and respect. It is all about effective communication, transparency, and relationships. It is also about meeting the needs of our customers.
- We need to provide evidence for support. We see myriad reasons to command respect each day, but do our publics see it? No, of course not. We need to pull back the curtain and show them a glimpse of the great things happening within K–12 education. We do that through strategic communications, customer service, and school public relations and by marketing our successes. We must show evidence that we meet our customers’ needs.
- We need to build relationships. Trust and respect are tied to relationships. We strengthen our relationships through honest public relations, excellent customer service, and current, timely communications that provide the reasons behind what we are doing and the benefits provided. We then become the go-to resource for answers because we are trusted. We build relationships with our customers as we meet their needs.
You may have noticed that each of these common needs falls under the umbrella of communications. This is also the topic of the above video but in a humorous way. However, it wasn’t outcomes-based (well, other than the temporary result of a more peaceful marriage).
The kind of communications I’m referring to is under the school leader’s direct control. So, stop thinking about your wants and start doing something to meet your customers’ needs, and you’ll find you are now meeting your school’s needs and have become your own story’s hero.
It’s all about communications!
I hope you are getting a glimpse of the power you can wield by making effective communications a priority. Don’t assume anyone outside of your own head will see or understand your perspective or appreciate your intentions. It is your job to communicate this information.
Of course, being honest about the strengths and weakness of your school is imperative. You must continually work to strengthen any areas of weakness, whether it is staff training, parent engagement, or curriculum. And being transparent on your improvement goals will always work in your favor.
However, it is your areas of excellence that you’ll build your communications around. You’ll target the customers who want what your school has to offer and help them recognize how your school meets their needs.
To use yet another storytelling example, anyone who has ever taken a writing class is told to “show don’t tell” if they hope to be believable. This is true for leaders too. What can you show?
- Show evidence of student success. Whether in academics, college acceptance, scholarships, vocational skills, inclusivity, student safety, character building, life skills, or any other focus important to your audience, be sure to provide evidence of your school’s strengths.
- Share relatable solutions. Every customer is trying to have a need (or want) met, solve a problem, or create an opportunity. Show them how your solutions meet those needs through caring staff, integrated technology, effective curriculum, etc.
- Build trust and confidence. To establish your school as the experts, worthy of trust and confidence, you must show proof in the form of stats, stories, and testimonials. You must also share the rationale and reasoning behind your school’s offerings (the why of what you do at your school).
The school communications delivery model
To get your school’s needs fulfilled, you must first show your customers you can meet their needs. You communicate that information with every action and every interaction you and every person at your school makes. From the level of customer service provided by your receptionist and the way you write the school website content to the images and content posted on your school social media and the marketing and public relations strategies you create, you are either helping your school meet its needs, or you are failing to do so.
This can be done step-by-step, over time, or you can create a strategic communications plan up front to reach your goals faster. You can begin with website content, social media, public relations, customer service, or marketing your school. However, start by focusing on your customers’ needs and the outcomes within your influence.
What do you gain when you meet your customers’ needs?
- Trust from parents, which makes your staff’s jobs easier and more effective
- Confidence from students who know you are committed to each of them
- Belief in the expertise and dedication your school delivers
- Standing and respect that attracts quality staff, motivated students, and public support
So, remember. It isn’t about the nail. It is about what you can do to make the changes you hope to see in the world (or at least for your school).
P.S. Not sure where to begin? Give us a call and tell us what your “needs” are, and we can recommend a starting point for your school. Call Jim at (888) 750.4556, Option 1.
Oh, and here are some more ideas to focus on your needs (and those of your customers):
- Creating a buzz using school PR
- Effective school communications is possible
- Inbound marketing for schools
- School customer service: from good to great
- Best practices for school website copywriting
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.