Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: Crafting Meaningful Conversations With Our Stakeholders

Guest post by Chris Koch

A colleague with whom I’d shared a classroom once asked me what the toughest part was about being an administrator. The look on his face revealed his surprise at how quickly I answered, “Having meaningful conversations with staff, students, and parents.”

Several years ago, I was in a unique position. I was finishing my 18th year as a classroom teacher when my school hired me to take over as assistant principal. Despite widespread support, I now found myself having many conversations, some difficult, with the staff, students, and parents whom I had worked alongside or taught just months before. Over time, I began to recognize the importance of making sure that each conversation was mutually beneficial and acknowledging that these conversations were a critical component in building lasting relationships.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned about talking with our stakeholders:

Conversations With Staff

  • Staff members want to be heard. It is important to have an open-door policy and take the time to listen to what your staff has to say. They will appreciate the opportunity to be heard.
  • Honesty is always the best policy. Being open, transparent, and honest with your staff quickly leads to trust upon which a positive climate can be built.
  • You are all on the same team. Regardless of the issue, the staff member and the school leader must work together through open dialogue to bring it to a successful resolution.
  • In the end, we are working toward a common goal. As you work through the conversation, thoughts shared should always remain focused on what is best for students. This will often remove personal feelings and emotion from the situation.
  • Remember, you’ve been on the other side of the desk. The vast majority of school leaders spent many years in the classroom or working in education. It is important to always remember where you came from.

Conversations With Students

  • Students are the reasons we do what we do. We have been called to work with young people; they are our largest and most important group of stakeholders. We want to be there, and they need us.
  • Model appropriate behavior and respect. We will have thousands of conversations with students. They are always watching to see how we respond, react, and treat them and they will more often respond in kind.
  • Keep it positive. As leaders, we will have a wide range of conversations with our students, some easy, some difficult. Regardless of the situation, shining a positive light on even the most difficult conversation will likely lead to a favorable outcome.
  • Students are in the process of learning and growing. In the moments before I talk to students, I remind myself that they are students and that each of these conversations is a learning experience like any other. A well-crafted conversation should lead to new learning.
  • Talk WITH them, not TO them. It is important to allow them to be an active participant in a respectful, appropriate conversation. Talking with them not only affirms a mutual respect but often leads to a more fruitful discussion.

Conversations With Parents

  • Parents are working to protect and support their child. I used to think that my perspective was the most important. As I grew into my role, I shifted my thinking and realized that each conversation was a piece in creating a partnership between the school and home, and as a result, my conversations became much richer.
  • Don’t just listen … HEAR. The majority of parents we will speak with are not educators. We have to allow the people on the other end of the line or across the table to find their way through a situation while we guide them along the way.
  • When appropriate, share your story. I have often had a good deal of success in sharing the fact that I am a parent too. Parenthood comes in different shapes and sizes, but it is a common bond among adults with children. Find a way to relate whenever you can.
  • Parents are active participants in the process. Allow parents to participate in the process from the beginning and to work with you in support of an eventual resolution.
  • Have an exit strategy. Conversations can get bogged down. When speaking with parents, have a reasonable exit strategy. There has to be an appropriate way to end a conversation, and whether it’s apparent or not, parents are looking for a resolution to build upon as the work between the school and home continues.

What are your most effective practices for having meaningful conversations with staff, students, and parents?

Chris Koch is the assistant principal of Frank Scott Bunnell High School in Stratford, CT. He was the 2017 Connecticut High School Assistant Principal of the Year.

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