The Hard Work of Changing Public Perception

What U.S. schools must embrace in order to earn respect

school public perception and public relations

Nationwide, schools in the United States have a public relations problem. It would seem they could fix these problems with some well-managed strategic communications and marketing efforts, right? But, the problem goes deeper than that. It isn’t even entirely a perception problem; some of it is a reality. We must respond to these issues quite differently. 

For starters, let’s talk about perceptions and why there is such a divide between what we think of ourselves and how others view us.

The image disconnect

Anyone capable of being honest with himself or herself will admit that we don’t judge others by the same measure we judge ourselves. Not because we are selfish and egocentric either, but because we factor in our good intentions. We seldom do that for others simply because we don’t know their intentions. It is human nature. Until we are capable of reading minds and hearts, it will remain that way.

What is an educator’s self-image? Based on my own unscientific research, here is how most of my educator friends and family see themselves.

  • I am dedicated and hard working.
  • I give generously of my knowledge, compassion, and time daily.
  • I have a big heart, putting the needs of others before my own.
  • I am inclusive, altruistic, selfless, passionate, and caring.
  • My career and my expertise are undervalued and unappreciated.

The perception gap

First, recognize that public perception varies significantly between how people feel about their child’s school and how they feel about schools nationwide. Parents often give their local schools an “A”  or “B” grade, but when being polled about U.S. schools nationwide, the perception is far less rosy. (52% are dissatisfied with K–12 education nationwide. 79% are satisfied with their own child’s education. Gallup 2017)

Now, to see the perception gap, let’s look at how others describe educators nationwide. (Overhead comments, online forums, articles, surveys, etc.)

  • There are too many bad teachers, but bad teachers don’t get fired
  • Education degrees are an easy major. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
  • Educators work fewer hours, get summers, breaks, and all holidays off but complain about not making salaries like those working 12-month jobs.
  • Educators are: whiny, uncaring, unprofessional, selfish, entitled, lazy, and bored.

Yes, anyone in education could debate, heatedly, how unfair or faulty such perceptions may be and what causes them. But, as you know, perception is reality, so we must address what we know. Our excuse has been that we are too busy educating students; we don’t have time to market ourselves. We shouldn’t need to, right? 

If only that were true.

I’m sure we would all agree that the media has heavily influenced nationwide perceptions. And, unfortunately for educators, many news and opinion outlets are far more interested in telling salacious stories or promoting their own agendas than acting as cheerleaders for schools. But to be fair, media rationale (and advertising dollars) is that we humans are attracted to the most sensationalist stories, and they would be right. After all, Jerry Springer has been on the air for 27 years now. So, what are our options?

How to bridge the perception gap?

First of all, we must be honest with ourselves. Some of these perceptions are not simply a public relations problem. Some are truths that educators need to address. If schools want respect, they must earn it by fixing those problems. If the perception is unfair, change it by telling your side of the story and proving your case.  

Maybe you can’t make such changes for the whole nation from your little corner of the world; there are too many complexities involved. But as a school, you can change perceptions within your area of influence—and possibly far beyond your school boundaries. 

In the book, The Way Back, How Christians blew our credibility and how to get it back, by Phil Cooke and Jonathan Bock, they discuss similar perception problems for Christians. I know, separation of church and state and all of that, but bear with me; the comparison provides some relevant solutions. The authors point out that to positively change the minds of the masses, you have to walk your talk. Their term was to “be all in.” 

How can we apply similar principles to the negative perceptions about American education?

Changing hearts, minds, and perceptions

Let’s take a few of the negative perceptions we mentioned and look at some ways to alter those perceptions. Educators can address some of these issues by improving communications, by telling their stories, and through their public relations efforts. Otherwise, those that are fact and not just a faulty perception will need to be addressed head-on and changed.

1. Perception: Bad teachers are protected and seldom terminated.

What adult or student hasn’t known at least one poor teacher? Most school employees and principals also know which teachers are sub-par. So, when poor teachers’ jobs are secure due to tenure, union protections, or laws, the reputation of all educators is marred. No amount of public relations will convince the public that educators are deserving of their admiration when other educators appear to protect those who are unsatisfactory.

Solution? Raise the bar. If that means changing tenure laws, union contracts, or state laws, give educators the right to reward the best and remove those who won’t or can’t meet higher standards. In any field where poor quality is ignored or protected, the whole industry suffers by association. (Consider how industries like politics or Hollywood are perceived, based on the lowest common denominators.)

Then, in addition to fixing the flaws in the system and making sure your publics know about those fixes, make sure you create a communications strategy that will highlight the quality, skills, and successes of your staff. That means finding and sharing with your publics on a regular basis through your school website, social media, recognition programs, and local media.

2. Perception: Education degrees are an easy major

There are many studies showing which college curriculums are the easiest, and education is typically one of them. There is a saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” 

One reason this perception exists might be that teachers are ubiquitous. There are approximately 3.6 million full-time equivalent (FTE) public and private school teachers in the U.S.(1) Parents most likely have more contact with the teaching profession than any other professional group (compare it with the time people spend with doctors or nurses or CEOs). For example, there are only 340,000(2) career firefighters and 900,000 policemen(3). Roughly 55.9 million students are enrolled in either public or private schools(4), so that is a lot of parents engaging with educators. 

Everyone has had a teacher. So, some people believe they know what educators do and could do it themselves. Others believe it is glorified babysitting. The increase in homeschooling in the past few decades lends credence to the idea that more and more parents feel quite capable of teaching. Although many homeschooling parents say their main reason for homeschooling was their concern about school environment—safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure. Their concerns about academic quality usually came in second. There are now approximately 2 million home-schooled students(5). 

Solution? Many of the negative perceptions related to educational careers can be improved through strategic communication efforts. Our personal experiences bias our perceptions, for good or ill. To change others’ perceptions, we must show a more accurate perspective. Warning: this effort must be authentic and honest. It must be a consistent effort throughout the year if you hope to change minds and hearts. For some communication ideas about how to get started, try: Telling Your School’s Stories.

3. Perception: Educators work fewer hours, get summers, breaks, and all holidays off but complain about not making salaries like those working 12-month jobs.

The majority of adults working full time in this country average 47 hours per week(6). 33% of employed people also worked for some period of time on the weekends. This is more hours than in other countries. Americans also receive fewer vacation days and often don’t take all the time they are given. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when parents working long hours know that schools are closed and parking lots are empty before they ever get off of work.(7)

Of course, sometimes others are not aware that, like any respected profession, there is a lot that goes into being an outstanding educator. For teachers, there are the extra hours of grading papers and preps for the next day. Some schools also require extra-curricular duties from bus duty to club sponsors. There are also ongoing professional development and teacher education requirements. For administrators, they typically are required to work 12 months of the year and, like their counterparts in business, they have meetings and deadlines that require them to get the work done, regardless of the “normal” work-day hours.

Solution? As with the solutions mentioned previously, this too is tied to using communication to give others a glimpse into our world and helping them understand that it is the years of education and experience that allows educators to be effective. Just as a brain surgeon’s hourly fees for a few hours of surgery seems exorbitant, they are paid for their years of expertise and experience.  

Educators have to work a bit harder to share the evidence of their work. The proof, like parenting, is not something you see immediately but over many years of diligence and consistency. They have to let parents know that they care about the individuals in their charge. Teachers must bring the successes and progress to the attention of busy parents, or parents won’t be aware of it. The surgeon’s evidence is immediate. The patient lives or dies. For educators, the patients languish or reach their potential over many years, and the educator seldom gets credit for the successes. School communication, tied with customer service and public relations can provide the evidence and trigger the emotion that can change those negative perceptions. It takes consistent, strategic effort by all the school’s staff to bring these messages to light. Learn from: Why School Marketing MattersPublic Relations for Schools, and From Good to Great: School Customer Service.

4. Perception: Educators are: whiny, uncaring, entitled, lazy, and bored.

I’m sure all professions have their share of people who might leave impressions like those listed above. We’ve all had experiences where we have even seen such examples. But, complaining about the unfairness of it all when we feel unfairly judged can lead to confirmation of those very opinions. A much more powerful approach might be to prove them wrong through our actions.

Solution? Use multi-pronged communication strategies to: show them caring, show them being unselfish, show them as dedicated in spite of challenges, show them being generous, show them working hard, show them being excited about their work and their students. Encourage other staff members to live their intentions; then make their stories a regular part of your communications and public relations strategies. 

Consider what the public often sees of educators outside of their local school events. The last thing I saw, just yesterday, in fact, was a news segment about a teacher strike where angry, strident individuals were waving signs, demanding a raise. That scene made the news, and regardless of how worthy the cause, the sound bite can easily reinforce the very perceptions schools are trying to combat. If I don’t have a child in school to counteract these perceptions, negative perceptions will persist. If schools don’t take steps to counteract the negative messages with positive ones, who will? Don’t let others control the messages because they are seldom in your schools best interest. Check out: Your Most Powerful School Marketing Tool, Telling Your Stories and Simple Rules of Word-Of-Mouth Marketing.

What’s a school to do?

You must be all in. You have to get everyone at your school to be all in as well. That means you must hire staff who believe in your cause. They must believe they can make a difference and are valued. They must value others. How can educational leaders encourage such actions? 

  • Be the example. You might feel alone, but you are not. It is only a loud, uncivil minority that attempts to grab the stage. But, behind these noisy, negative naysayers, millions of Americans want to trust and respect our profession. They want to believe they can entrust their children, and all of our futures, to committed and dedicated educators. You have to show them proof that they can. Be all in, and your actions and attitudes will go viral, at least within your scope of influence. And that is a start! You are NOT entitled to respect. The minute you recognize that and begin to earn it, perceptions will begin to change.
  • Show them proof. You do this with strategic communication. You do it through the stories you gather and share with your publics. You do it in the priorities you select for your staff. You must recognize that if you don’t show the naysayers proof, they will never know that their perceptions are wrong. You must replace negative perceptions with positive ones. Select very specific goals, and prioritize your communication efforts around those goals. Create a communications plan that uses every channel of communication available in your community. This takes planning and follow-through. It takes training, inspiring, and recognizing successes.
  • Make communication a priority. You must weave these efforts into the very fabric of your school culture. Everyone should be engaged in looking for great examples of success and progress. Customer service should be a part of your school brand. Relationships should be more important than test scores. Using communications daily, in every channel, not only works but makes everyone’s job a lot more fun! 

To return to our earlier comparison of the book about the perceptions I mentioned, a small sect of outliers went from anonymity to worldwide influence. They did it because they were all in. They shared the miracles they witnessed, and their commitment changed the beliefs of the Romans and eventually, much of the world. 

What miracles happen within your schools that you aren’t sharing?

I’ll bet you witness miracles nearly every year in your profession. Do you see and help the discouraged find inspiration? Do you witness those who are failing as they learn to thrive? Do you observe minds engaged and excited that will achieve dreams beyond their current potential? These are the proofs that will change perceptions if you’ll only pull back the curtain and proudly share these miracles with our sometimes cynical nation. 

When we are committed, when we are all in, we don’t simply wring our hands at how misunderstood we are; we roll up our sleeves and get to work. We don’t demand; we demonstrate our value. If we don’t, we have no right to complain about not being respected. When we do, we are respected. If you work in the field of education, be all in to make a difference, and then share the results of that hard work. The rest will take care of itself!

Public Relations for Schools

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.