‘What is your umbrella?’
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support Services Director
Madison County Schools Superintendent Tommy Floyd is one of those speakers whose exterior demeanor and one-on-one chat style may lull you into a limited assessment of “nice guy, enjoys his job, loves kids, animals and sports.”
But give the man a podium, a microphone or any other public platform, and settle back for an exhibition of passion.
My introduction to Floyd came during a meet-and-greet with first-year superintendents a few years back. New leader after new leader got up for self-introductions, the kind we’ve all heard and forgotten almost as quickly as the breath of the next speaker was exhaled. Not this time.
“My name is Tommy Floyd and I work for the children in the Madison County Schools.”
That oh-so-brief but oh-so-profound proclamation stuck with me, so when Floyd got up to deliver a keynote speech at this fall’s Kentucky School Public Relations Association professional development event, I had pen and paper out for notes. I’m glad I did.
“We can’t make excuses about the kids we get because the parents are sending us the best kids they have,” Floyd said, commenting on the recently released Kentucky Core Content Test “autopsy” in his district. After the Department of Education released its numbers, Madison County teachers and administrators came to work without students for a “Data Day” devoted to intensive study of the latest test scores.
But it was when Floyd got rolling about the messages public schools must deliver that he galvanized my attention again.
“Every informed decision we make results in criticism,” he said. “The ‘why’ behind those decisions must be your umbrella. What does your umbrella say?
“You have to have clear messages that all go back to your umbrella,” Floyd said. “The public should not be able to get away from your message, your umbrella.”
In your district, on your board, throughout your community, what is your umbrella?
Promotion, not protection
If you pull out a thesaurus and look up umbrella, you’ll find alternatives such as sanctuary, fox-hole, shield and refuge – terms used to describe protective functions.
But you’ll also find anchor, mainstay, stepping-stone, safety curtain and strong point. I think these latter terms more closely mirror Floyd’s meaning when he spoke of the “umbrella” of messages for schools.
As a young teen on a family farm, sometimes I drove a tractor with an umbrella that didn’t just limit the exposure to the sun but also reduced potentially painful burns and possibly deadly skin cancers. The more common use of an umbrella doesn’t just ward off the rain – it protects that new dress and the body beneath it that never benefits from long periods in a soaked suit.
Floyd’s umbrella metaphor, at least to me, wasn’t just about a shield against “rock-throwing” critics. It also was about how telling schools’ success stories offers protection against inaccuracies, rumors, deceits and half-truths that can tear away at the public support for schools, strong or struggling.
The umbrella for a public school or district is so much more than test scores. You can build your own umbrella, panel by protective panel, starting with academic numbers, and then moving on:
• College scholarship dollars earned
• Hours of mentoring and other volunteering
• Quality instructional evaluation tools
• Technology-enhanced learning
• Innovative professional development
• Solid financial planning for good times and bad
• Programs that help students keep up with peers
• Security measures ensuring a safe place to learn
• Facility improvements that support instruction
• Recognitions of special contributions by students
Doubtless, you can construct a better set of Top 10 panels for your district’s umbrella because of your intimate, onsite, hands-on knowledge. The point is neither the size of the umbrella nor the number of panels, but that you as leaders are ready to protect your schools and district with an umbrella of clear, concise messages that demonstrate one theme: We are laboring for the students, their futures, their dreams, and their – not our – successes.
The Last Word
Don’t allow yourselves to become distracted, Floyd warned his audience of school system writers, photographers, webmasters, designers and spokesmen gathered in Lexington.
“If we don’t tell the story, who will?” he asked. “You must realize that your community cannot (as a whole) go into your schools. They can’t go into your buildings, so you must promote what is going on in there. You can’t lose your focus on your children.”
So what is your school board’s umbrella of messages about its schools? What is your district’s umbrella about its focus on teaching and learning and excellence of effort?
Are you that umbrella or at least a firm panel of promotion and protection? Or are you a weakened section of fabric which, when ripped by a strong blow of criticism, reduces the safeguard for those students and staff nestled around you?
Involved, informed leaders don’t make excuses. They don’t hide shortcomings or attempt to explain away challenges by pointing to funding shortfalls, skyrocketing expectations or innovation-stifling regulations. They push for change, yes, but they also climb atop the community dais and proclaim, “Come learn what our students, our teachers and our team are making happen.”
And that’s a message worth getting out.