Administration & Leadership

Keeping Lines of Communication Open During Distance Learning

Clear, positive messages from administrators can go a long way toward helping teachers working at home feel more connected.

June 17, 2020
FreshSplash / iStock

You’ve considered all interpretations of your email’s content and feel secure that every critical detail is well thought out and explicitly stated. So you hit send and await your staff’s response. However, your intended message is lost, and teachers report being confused.

We’ve all been there, and times of high stress only increase the likelihood that messages will be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

Many administrators would admit that going to distance learning has not only heightened emotional tension among teaching faculty but also unearthed the fragility of communication with them as well. Think back to your childhood days of playing Telephone, where the message being communicated always seemed to get misconstrued or convoluted. Now picture playing Telephone literally over the telephone. Better yet, imagine playing the game using a platform with which many are unfamiliar, at a time when participants are experiencing trauma and high levels of anxiety. This is our current reality of communication during distance learning amid Covid-19.

Although administrators want to help faculty with navigating online learning platforms, conducting community outreach, creating and uploading instructional content, and being responsive to student needs, any attempts at communicating may be a catalyst for information overload and exacerbating staff stressors.

So how can administrators provide support without overwhelming staff? 

3 Strategies for Restoring a Sense of Normalcy and Team Culture

1. Lead with inquiry to check the pulse of staff members: Start by listening. Cultivating a leadership style of inquiry helps mitigate communication difficulties through empowering every voice. Uplifting faculty voices provides cathartic release that informs administration of areas of need, support, and further development. Actively listening to staff concerns and anxieties also keeps administrators privy to needed changes or tweaks to future communication.

Eliminating ambiguity and practicing transparency is key for building trust, too. We can’t change circumstances, but we can adjust our communicative efforts to provide a reprieve from stress caused by uncertainty and reinstitute a sense of normality. Utilize informal arenas such as group texting chats to connect with staff on a personal level and establish a shared mindset of “Is this working?” to breed collective ownership that disarms apprehension and strengthens team orientation. The best ideas often organically manifest when everyone critically thinks through collaborative discussions in a low-stakes forum.

When teachers are outside their comfort zone, any disseminated information may be internalized as threatening to their equanimity despite good intentions, and leading with inquiry is a great way to stay in tune with staff morale to continually support and collectively problem-solve.

2. Steer clear of information overload: Less is more. Working toward our shared goal of enhancing student achievement often requires the clarity of being detail oriented, but that becomes extremely difficult to accomplish while also avoiding the trap of information overload.

Implementing guiding questions to act as a common playbook can unify discussions with staff members. Presenting teachers with manageable action items can ameliorate worry and answer “What am I doing?” in relation to the teacher role and responsibilities. A constant referencing of shared goals upholds a keen focus on “Why am I doing it?” and facilitating continuous professional development with helpful guidelines allows teachers to answer, “How do I do it?” Training staff to be able to do what you are asking of them keeps the team on the same page.

Sticking to essential facts and incorporating tools such as rubrics, scripts, and professional articles calibrates expectations, quells confusion, and provides a sense of solid footing for staff to rely on if additional questions arise. It is important to be a reliable source of information to help restore routine while dispelling nervous assumptions.

3. Stay positive. Stay human: Express gratitude and preach teamwork. Teachers feed off of administrator energy, and staying positive curbs the temptation of a negative headspace generated from frustration and feeling overwhelmed. The more comfortable we feel, the more willing and inclined we are to try our best.

Virtually congregating for “staff soirées” every Friday to enjoy leisure time sparks team mentality, partnership, and mutual understanding. Plus, being genuine with your encouragement to practice self-care displays the authenticity needed for a safe, collaborative environment.

Another worthwhile undertaking is to send handwritten notes of appreciation to teachers. This type of effort validation garners a healthy dose of positivity that boosts staff morale and shows a good-faith gesture of humility. Resistance often emanates from fear, and a lack of task completion may be due to a need for support rather than sheer defiance. Education is predicated on relationships, and emphasizing emotional quotient over intellectual quotient more effectively achieves target goals.

Remember to combat fears and lighten the mood with some humor by letting teachers know that you share their struggles. Creating a “Humble Brags” email chain where teachers highlight points of pride and seek out peer assistance allows a meeting of the minds to occur in a lighthearted way. Engaging in positive feedback and healthy dialogue energizes all to contribute and is a great opportunity for the appraisal of collective team efforts.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” and maintaining clear lines of communication amid times of high emotional tension is no easy task. Like a valuable antique, communication is fragile yet abundantly important. Putting into practice these ideas can help administrators support teachers who feel overwhelmed by restoring a sense of normality and building community to prevent wires from getting crossed.

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