Communication: Finding the right balance for students, families and educators

October 16, 2020 Sarah Williamson By Sarah Williamson
Teacher Leading Discussion Group Amongst High School Students

In our latest episode of the podcast Opportunity Thrives, we explore the extraordinary pressure on education leaders to provide effective, informative, accurate and timely communication to students, staff, families and the larger school community right now.

It has never been easy to be an educator, but the pressure to educate our students and find the right balance of communication, can be overwhelming. In this episode, we dig a little deeper into how this is working in practice, including examples from districts that are finding strategies that work well to support both students and educators.    

Districts across the country have developed and are implementing reopening plans—plans to safely welcome students and staff back to school this fall. Their work has been comprehensive, thorough, and unprecedented.

We discuss how districts are reevaluating their approach to communication with families and their school communities, including what strategies have been effective, and what has been challenging as they provide district updates and communicate critical information to students and families.


Guests on the show

Tom Vacanti joined us for this discussion. Originally a high school science teacher, Tom has been the Online Learning Coordinator for the City School District of Albany, New York since 2011. In this role, he develops and implements web-based learning solutions for secondary level students with the goal of meeting the needs of diverse learning populations.

He works together with students, parents, teachers, and administrators to identify deficits and develop short-term and long-term plans to meet student educational goals. And he has been very involved in the communication strategies with students, families, and district leadership.

Kanoe Namahoe, the director of content for SmartBrief Education, also joined us for this episode. She covers the latest breaking news in education technology within the K-12 and higher ed sectors. As an editor, Kanoe has a broad perspective of trends in K-12, including how districts are evolving their reopening plans and the communication strategies they are implementing to support them.


Relationships matter  

Throughout the conversation, both Tom and Kanoe echoed two themes: relationships matter and educators have always played an integral role in the success of their students, and that is more apparent now than ever before.  

Tom shared a phrase that he coined for his district, “aggressive advocacy,” which he believes is about providing students with all of the tools they need to be successful, while still holding them accountable for their success.  

Tom also emphasized his district’s approach to communication of casting the widest net possible to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. But even more importantly, he shared that when they see students are disengaged with virtual learning, they are going back to basics and reaching out directly by phone to check in with those students and their families to see what might be going on. The goal is to make sure students know where to go to get their questions answered. And even more importantly, they have one point of contact to help them answer their questions.

Kanoe and Tom both shared that developing relationships with their students, ensuring they feel connected, comfortable, and they want to learn the material, will make the difference between success and failure.

At Albany City School District, they recognize that students (and educators) are all feeling brutally overwhelmed and out of place. Students are conditioned to have teachers be their grounding and guiding force, but being at home makes that very difficult.

They are doing whatever it takes to foster that same feeling virtually. Tom has set up a system up where kids call and text him, he has established an online learning hotline, and different subject area teachers are available on different nights until 8 p.m. as well as on Saturdays to help students with questions.  


Considering SEL for students and educators                                   

Tom and Kanoe also both agreed that ensuring students and educators are equipped with the social-emotional skills they need to get through this time is incredibly important. Albany City School District is dedicated to providing self-care for teachers and they have established mindful moments for educators where they encourage teachers to think about themselves and to ensure they stay healthy (both mentally and physically!).

And they also shared the importance of saying thank you and acknowledging the significant effort virtual and hybrid learning requires of teachers. Even a hand-written thank you note from a principal or superintendent can make teachers feel appreciated.


Set boundaries  

Kanoe encouraged teachers to set parameters and boundaries for when and how they communicate with students and their families and to stay firm on those parameters. She encouraged teachers to stop feeling guilty for setting boundaries. People will respect and adjust to them as long as you stick with them. It’s important for teachers to also have a life outside of school and Tom shared that it’s important for leadership to publicly support educator boundaries.


Teachers are more important now than ever

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, Tom shares that online learning will never take a teacher’s job. Without the best teacher support, even high achievers and average students are not successful with online learning. We have amazing technology and resources available, but without an effective teacher supporting these students, they are less engaged and will be less successful.

This was such a fascinating conversation filled with many valuable insights that can be applied to other districts who are honing and improving communication strategies. Listen to the full episode:


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