As back-to-school quickly approaches, the excitement for a new school year is growing.
Soon, we’ll be met with the hum of school buses in the morning. The shouts of students as they reunite with friends after a long summer. The excitement of fall sports and meet-the-teacher nights.
This feeling of annual renewal and opportunity is among the many reasons I chose to become an educator.
But there’s a flipside to back-to-school.
Along with all the excitement and anticipation, there is trepidation about what’s in store for the year ahead–not just among students, but also among parents, faculty, staff, school leaders, and administrators.
It’s impossible to predict what challenges will arise on any given day, in any given school. But in these pre-opening days and weeks, the tone you set will go a long way toward ensuring a successful and productive year.
When we asked school leaders to identify their most important strategic initiatives, three of the top responses involved improving relationships with community members. Building community trust (90%), engaging external stakeholders (80%), and providing high-quality customer experiences for all stakeholders (76%) were identified as key initiatives. (Download a First Look at our upcoming State of K-12 Customer Experience Report here).
But our research also revealed a gaping lack of confidence among school leaders, with just around half saying they were very confident in their ability to deliver on these initiatives.
If these numbers are any indication, you probably understand that making a good first impression on students, their families, and staff before and during back-to-school helps you build trust and nurture critical relationships.
You might also be concerned about how to do this.
The right approach requires two key elements: 1) strong preparation and 2) a customer-service mindset.
According to the school leaders we work with, at least half of the inbound questions and concerns received from community members come around back-to-school, during the “August onslaught” through early fall.
These weeks leading up to the first days of school represent a great opportunity to anticipate and prepare for these inevitable challenges. As a former superintendent and someone who spends his days traveling the country and meeting with school leaders, I can’t tell you the number of horror stories I’ve heard from friends and colleagues.
When I led school districts in Louisiana and Michigan, I made it a point to listen to and understand the concerns of parents, students, staff, and community members early on in the year–and to ensure my staff was prepared to effectively meet those needs.
Among our core areas of focus headed into a new school year:
1. Make clear communication a goal from Day 1
Everybody talks about the importance of clear communication. But when you’re trying to serve the needs of thousands of students, and tens of thousands of parents, clear communication is often anything but easy. Make sure students, parents, and community members have a safe and easy way to reach you–and hold yourself and your team accountable for responding in a timely fashion. Those responses will pay huge dividends down the road. Remember: Early communication is important. Make sure you’re reaching out to parents and students in the weeks, even months prior to the first day.
2. Promote and nurture quality instruction
There is no substitute for quality instruction. But sometimes it takes us a while to get into a good rhythm. Plan ahead for continuity and avoid at all costs having substitutes early in the year. The instructional and academic goals for the school year should be clear and widely shared with students, staff, and parents–and made available to the entire community.
3. Articulate a clear plan
Success and expectations go hand in hand. Make sure students know what is expected of them on a daily basis. Make sure parents understand their role too. Work on that school-home connection, and give everybody, students and parents alike, a clear set of goals to aspire to. Make them aware of the opportunities to work in partnership with your school through PTA, athletic boosters, or tutoring programs.
4. Ensure that strong leadership is in place
Principals, teachers, and staff set the tone for your schools, especially early in the year. Make sure that all staff are present and welcoming on Day 1.
5. Demonstrate a visible commitment to security
Security provides peace of mind; it also frees the mind to focus on school. Provide visible evidence throughout your schools that security is a top priority. Schedule drills and other events to set the tone, and clearly share your security plans and goals with parents.
6. Welcome people into your buildings and onto your campuses
How your schools look and feel matters. Closely evaluate each of your school buildings. Are your buildings physically in good shape? Do they have curb appeal? Are your hallways and classrooms clean and uncluttered? This “stuff” really matters to parents.
Back-to-school represents a great opportunity to build lasting relationships with your school community. One way to do that: provide exceptional school customer service.
Every interaction a parent or a student has with a member of your team, especially during back-to-school activities, represents an incredible opportunity to build trust and inspire.
Don’t waste a single moment. Whether a parent has a question about school bus routes or the social studies curriculum; whether a student wants to know what’s for lunch, the athletic schedule, or how to submit his or her homework, the upshot of each of these interactions, simple as they may sound, is critical to the culture and reputation of your schools.
Good luck this school year. If you haven’t downloaded the first look at our national State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, you can download it here.