‘Flatten the Walls’: Communicating During the Pandemic

When we shut our doors in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my inbox almost became unmanageable with the flood of questions from parents. Being the senior class assistant principal, you can only imagine the number of questions about graduation. We quickly developed a blog as a means of sending out information about graduation and other announcements. However, while creating a virtual graduation program, we realized that the need for interaction went well beyond just posting daily announcements. We needed to do more virtually to connect with all of our stakeholders. Redefining our communication with our stakeholders and cultivating partnerships became my central focus for the summer and is informing my approach to connecting with our school community during the new school year.

Flattening the Walls’

Before the pandemic, I had attended the Tennessee Association of Secondary School Principals Winter Conference in February, where I first heard Joe Sanfelippo speak. His call to “flatten the walls of the schools” and engage stakeholders resonated with me, and I found his daily one-minute walk and talk to work a brilliant way to help share what was going on. At this same conference, Beth Houf talked about the importance of communication to her success in her school. What stuck with me from these two speakers was the simplicity of what they were doing and the impact it had on their communities and the schools.

As we prepared for a virtual graduation ceremony, I began to formulate a plan. I went online and searched on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms and found several examples of how schools were reaching out to their communities to provide daily—even hourly—updates to their stakeholders. At first, I focused on developing connections with the seniors and their parents to send out graduation updates via a newly created Twitter account and a basic Facebook group page. Graduation was a success, with parents giving high praise to the plan and the communication of how it was working. Riding the positive reactions of the parents and students, I approached my principal about creating communications links with the broader school community. He agreed, and I began creating new accounts for the school on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, looking to the information Joe, Beth, and some of my colleagues from across the state were putting out about school building closures.

Preparing for Fall

As the summer progressed, it became evident that the beginning of school would be a challenge and that communicating these changes to stakeholders would be an even greater necessity. As the district was sending out surveys and announcements, we decided that it was important that our stakeholders hear directly from us to let them know that we are here and supporting them at the school level.

Beginning in August, I have been sending out short one-minute videos with updates and posting them to our school Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook group pages. These brief videos let parents know updates to information the district and school have put out, upcoming events, even links to PDFs when needed. Each of my messages ends with the tagline, “it’s a great day to be a Panther!” Ending each video message this way goes to further promote that we are all part of the community together.

When parents and students saw this, they said they appreciated the information, but especially appreciated the human touch. Now don’t get me wrong—we still post PDFs and links to gather information, but it is the delivery that we believe is making the greatest impact. If our stakeholders can see and hear a person, I believe the information is more meaningful. Granted, I get a lot of questions, but that is also a good thing because it is generating engagement.

The more I can have contact with parents and students, the greater our ability to create a successful educational experience. Since its inception, our Facebook group has the greatest following. The open dialogue and seeing the parents helping each other in conversation threads have helped ease anxieties about the frequent changes we are all facing due to the pandemic and preparing for the reopening of our school buildings.

As we work to reopen our school buildings in these rapidly changing times, communication and developing relationships with our stakeholders should be a priority. Controlling the message and the means of its distribution helps to prevent unintentional disinformation while building a working relationship with parents, students, and the community.

Kevin Gideon is an assistant principal at Bartlett High School in Bartlett, TN, and the 2020 Tennessee Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow him and his school on Twitter (@drkagideon, @BartlettHS_INFO).

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