Use Good Communications Techniques to Address Constituent Concerns
Kentucky School Advocate
KSBA Director of Communications
There is, perhaps, no more important interaction for a school board member than the one he or she has with a parent or another member of the community. Whether it is out and about in town, on the telephone or at a school board meeting, your actions reflect not only on you as a board member but also the school district as a whole.
Good communication skills are required to ensure you have the information you need to formulate an appropriate response. As a member of a local school board, however, you must walk a fine line in providing an answer that addresses the issue raised but also falls within the parameters of the laws guiding what board members can do.
While state laws may vary, board members across the country face similar challenges. The California School Boards Association has developed what it calls the “6 R’s” as a way for board members to walk that fine line. Those “R’s” mirror what are generally considered good communication practices.
Receive the information: Actively listen to the person. Good listening skills are key to being able to communicate effectively. You must hear the message being conveyed to be able to respond.
Repeat the information: To ensure your understanding matches that of the person with whom you are communicating, paraphrase what was said in your own words.
Request options for resolving the problem: If people are complaining, they may have in mind what they would like to see done. This also provides more information for you to be able to help in the proper manner.
Review the conversation: Using the information you have gathered, you can present options to address the situation.
Redirect the person: If the person has a solution in mind, or if you can tell based on the options reviewed, direct the person to the appropriate place in the district. It might be a principal, a teacher or the superintendent. Generally, board members are not problem solvers for individual situations.
Report the conversation: Discuss the encounter with your superintendent to ensure he/she understands the situation and can act accordingly.
Because board members are elected officials, many of your constituents may not always understand why you can’t fix the situation or intervene on their behalf. The California “6 R’s” approach can ensure you steer clear of actions outside your realm of authority; combine those with a few other good communications techniques to maintain good will with the people you serve:
Respect the person discussing an issue with you. Actively listening and focusing on the conversation at hand illustrates your respect for the person. It’s also important to make eye contact and say the person’s name. Be thoughtful in directing the person to the district resource that might be able to help, to show that you understand the issue and are trying to help.
Remember that good communication is more than just the words you use. Your body language and facial expressions can belie your interest in the subject at hand. If you are talking face-to-face or on the phone, don’t get distracted or show disinterest. If you are sending an email, take the time to edit it to show the issue that is important to the constituent is also important to you.
Revisit the issue in some way. Ask the person to let you know how the situation was addressed or get their contact information to follow up with them. This goodwill gesture shows that you care about making sure your district serves the educational interests of the community.
Finally, realize your role as a school board member is governance, not administration. The board sets policies that help to guide the direction of the district, but doesn’t manage it. Helping the public understand that difference is one key concept you should always try to convey.