meetings of varying lengths, never
assume that the audience has prior
knowledge of the topic, are scrupulously stripped of jargon, and encourage
4. Build teams.
Teams, not individual presenters,
carry the message to the community.
Although almost any group of two to
four people can form an effective team,
I favor teams composed primarily of
willing teachers and staff members.
Administrators and board members can
and should participate in the process,
but it’s better if they’re not presenters.
Polls indicate that teachers inspire more
trust among audiences than administrators or board members do. Also,
having new faces represent the school
creates interest and raises audience
5. Conduct a communications audit.
In an effort to reach everyone in the
community, educators need to create
an inventory of all the ways that the
district (or school) “talks” to the public,
both directly and indirectly. Most
channels are obvious—for example,
websites, newsletters, e-mails, newspaper columns, and public-access cable.
Others are not, but they can be used to
advance the cause.
For example, the physical appearance
of district facilities sends a powerful
signal to the public about pride and
discipline that can intensify the community’s sense of ownership. The
amount and quality of student work
displayed throughout the community
give the public information about academic rigor and the strength of the curriculum. Inviting community members
to shadow a teacher or an administrator
for a day can foster trust and appreciation. Every communications tool at the
district’s disposal can be used to reinforce the message of the formal track.
Schools are rooted
in the culture of the
6. Create a presentation schedule.
We define the community’s turf when
we create our map. We conform to the
community’s convenience when we
schedule our teams to make their presentations when and where the people
of the community normally congregate.
The process is straightforward. Call
the designated contacts, explain the
Great Conversation and its goals, and
request an opportunity to make a presentation at one of their scheduled
meetings at their earliest convenience.
With each call, whether it be to the
Rotary Club, the garden club, or the
Ministerial Alliance, explain that this
presentation is the first in an ongoing
series focused on the topic of increasing
student success and strengthening the
community. This announcement places
everyone on notice that something new
has begun and that more will follow.
Engaging community members on
their turf at their convenience may seem
unwieldy. But the logistical control we
surrender is vastly outweighed by the
control we gain over the behavior of the
audience, the flow of our message, and
the tone and quality of the feedback.
7. Launch Phase 1.
We launch Phase 1 by having the
teams make their first presentations.
By offering our message and soliciting
feedback, we begin to dive deep into
the community’s cultural matrix and
confront public perceptions with professional reality. As each phase pro-gresses and we return again and again
to meet with all the disparate groups,
understanding, trust, permission, and
support grow. The people of the community begin to act as partners in the
most important enterprise of our time:
moving our schools and students from
where they are to where they need
Taking the First Step
Every district, rich or poor, regardless
of location, already has the personnel,
expertise, and resources it needs to
execute the Great Conversation and reap
its rewards. This approach can remove
obstacles to student achievement,
reduce staff and community resistance
to change, and foster an environment
conducive to innovation and progress. It
accords to teachers and administrators
their proper status as important professionals within the community.
The most important thing schools
and communities can do is take the first
step. We already have everything we
need to start. Without breaking the
budget, the Great Conversation can
position every school district to secure
the public sentiment it needs to unfold
the full potential of every child. EL
Copyright © 2011 by Jamie Vollmer
Jamie Vollmer is the president of
Vollmer Inc., a public education advocacy
firm working to increase student success
by raising public support for America’s
schools. He is the author of Schools
Cannot Do It Alone (Enlightenment
Press, 2010); firstname.lastname@example.org.