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If You Don’t Say It, Who Will? Improving Communications With PK-12 Communities

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

It happens far too often: PK-12 schools and higher education blame each other for educational shortcomings rather than collaborating on solutions or celebrating each other’s successes.

That’s why it was so encouraging to hear leaders from AACTE’s state chapters identify improved communication with PK-12 counterparts as a priority during last month’s State Leaders Institute. In the session I led on communications strategies, many teacher educators offered examples of how they are already building and strengthening these important relationships.  

Thomas R. Koballa, Jr., dean of the Georgia Southern University College of Education, invites faculty to join him on early-morning visits to local schools for “Donuts and Dean Days.” Participants share developments and mutual challenges, and lay the groundwork for student-teaching opportunities. “I’ve been really surprised by how many instructors get up early to join me on the visits,” he says. “I bring the donuts.”

Kate DaBoll-Lavoie, professor and immediate past chair of the Department of Inclusive Childhood Education at Nazareth College (NY), recently led a forum for dozens of PK-12 officials on how educator preparation programs can be better partners. The school officials filled out a survey that area preparation programs will use to better align instruction and outreach to support PK-12 colleagues. “You have to be willing to put yourself out there and open up,” DaBoll-Lavoie says. “This was very positive.”

Ann Larson of the University of Louisville (KY) stepped up to write an op-ed responding to what she felt was an unfair article in her newspaper about local schools—an act that surely found her new PK-12 allies.

These leaders and their institutions realize that extending a hand is more valuable than pointing a finger.

Clear and sustained communication can reinforce the perception that higher education is part of the solution, build champions for your institution, and even help strengthen enrollment.

Although the 40-plus institute participants lamented that such outreach is more the exception than the rule, it’s not hard to fix the communications pipeline. There is a lot that busy higher education leaders and faculty members can do to improve collaboration with PK-12 counterparts. Of course, educator preparation programs and PK-12 schools often have forged strong partnerships around field experiences for aspiring teachers, but opportunities to support one another—especially publicly—extend beyond clinical practice.

First, make improved communication a priority. Take stock of what is being done and coming up, and who is doing it, and develop a plan with new action steps for individuals, programs, and the institution. It can seem overwhelming, but keep this in mind: While no one can do everything, everyone can do something. If you feel out of your league, reach out to the communication experts on campus. Chances are, they will welcome your ideas, energy, and capacity to help them meet their own goals.

A good first step in planning is to list “low-hanging fruit” for improved communication, such as sharing newsletters, announcements, magazines, and regular communications with PK-12 communities; using social media to follow and share local schools’ news; inviting PK-12 leaders/educators to your events; or organizing professional development exchanges. And remember, your graduates are your best spokespersons. Do you know and understand what they are saying about you?

Every faculty member, program, and institution has good stories to tell. Unfortunately, these gems are like truffles in that they are highly valued but often hidden. Seek out, and share as appropriate, stories such as local teacher successes, employment rates for your graduates, low turnover rates of your alumni in local schools, or even detailed descriptions of how you support clinical practices. If you don’t say it, who will?

Ultimately, connect with your PK-12 colleagues by showing them you understand their needs and concerns. Examples could include describing how you teach early reading and elementary math or how you prepare candidates to manage classrooms. Many schools also will be interested in knowing how you expose candidates to high-need schools or how you prepare candidates to teach using technology or for deeper learning.

What do you do if this list doesn’t seem right to you? Ask your PK-12 colleagues. A simple question can open the door to improved communications, better relationships, and improved outcomes for all.

Robert C. Johnston is vice president for The Hatcher Group and former Education Week editor.

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Robert C. Johnston

Vice-President, The Hatcher Group