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Superintendent Listening Tours: How Rockford strengthened trust and demonstrated transparency through listening

Chief Communications Officer Earl Dotson, Jr. shares how his district planned and executed a successful listening tour.

With 41 schools and more than 4,000 teachers and staff, there are a lot of voices inside Rockford Public Schools in Illinois. 

And with burnout across the country at an all-time high and many teachers changing careers, we know trust and relationships are key to retaining and engaging our staff. 

As Chief Communications Officer for Rockford Public Schools, I’ve spent the past seven months executing an internal listening tour with our superintendent, Dr. Ehren Jarrett.

Dr. Jarrett, who was named superintendent in July 2013, has led significant changes throughout the district. The education environment has drastically changed over recent years, and we wanted to intentionally listen to our teachers and staff across the district as we collected feedback, addressed concerns, and identified opportunities. 

How we opened the door for feedback 

We started planning our listening tour in August 2020. Stops included visits to classrooms and conversations with principals, teachers, and other building personnel.

As we planned our tour, we knew not everyone would be able to meet, and some would not be comfortable sharing feedback verbally. We also created a listening tour form to collect feedback using Let’s Talk.

Let’s Talk allows teachers and staff to submit comments, questions, and feedback directly to the superintendent throughout the listening tour. We’ve found people appreciate this option, especially if they think of something after a meeting or if they’d like the option to be anonymous.

We made our Let’s Talk form easy to access through flyers and business cards with a QR code that linked directly to the form.

To date, Dr. Jarrett and I have visited every school one to two times and talked with hundreds of teachers and staff. And we’ve collected over 232 comments and questions through Let’s Talk.

Transparency and trust

The listening tour has been critical to supporting our district’s strategic plan. 

As a district, internal trust and relationships are the foundation of fostering a climate that supports continuous improvement. 

By opening up the administration to feedback, we’re able to ensure we’re providing a productive and satisfying climate for learning and teaching — including staff engagement, and satisfaction. This, in turn, helps support our goals of improving staff performance, engagement, and retention.

Let’s Talk made our listening tour a reality. With so much competition for our time, attention, and resources, Let’s Talk helps facilitate efficient communication and effective engagement — upholding our commitment to better collaboration and transparency, internally and externally.

It also allowed us to export all feedback to help us identify patterns, themes, and trends about needs and sentiment in our district. 

As we collect feedback, we want to turn the insights into action. 

We are planning a webinar to explain the new approach in how we have been engaging with staff. There will be a high level overview of the feedback we have received, as well as the themes we’ve noticed. And we plan on taking questions at the end.

Download K12 Insight’s School Superintendent Listening Tour Toolkit to learn how you can plan and execute a successful districtwide listening tour. 

Earl Dotson Jr., APR
By Earl Dotson Jr., APR
Originally published April 14, 2022 Last updated October 25, 2022