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A Delicate Balance - Communication in a Virtual World

When school began this past Monday, my son showed me two contradictory versions of his schedule. “Where am I supposed to go?” he asked, looking to me for guidance as I began scrolling frantically through the large number of emails from his school that crowded my inbox. Finally, I found the information we needed buried in a message from the principal, but it took a while. The delicate balance of clear communication between school and home has always been a challenge as we try to reach a Three Bears-style “just right” level of providing the most pertinent information to colleagues and to families. As we navigate virtual instruction, we have to figure out what people truly need to know, and what might just be added noise.

Streamline Communication

When I supervised a department, I condensed any relevant information into two weekly communications. The first was a newsletter that came out each Monday morning, and the second was a “mid-week update” that had just a few bullet pointed items that had emerged as important after the newsletter’s release. Those two communications aside, I made it a rule (broken rarely, admittedly) to email individuals only when absolutely necessary, and to conduct the rest of my interactions either face-to-face or via phone. In this distance learning climate, we get new information on a neverending basis, and it is completely overwhelming. To streamline our processes, it helps to think of a system that can function from week to week. Whatever system we choose, it should align with what we are most likely to do. For example, I like to write, so developing a newsletter made sense for my own practice. If we prefer face-to-face contact, establishing a weekly Zoom office hours might be the best means of communication, with a bulleted agenda provided to participants so that the conversation is focused. Once we develop a rhythm of scheduled and targeted communication, people will adjust to a streamlined process that embraces a “less is more” style of communication.

Prioritize Need-to-Know Information

Last week, I received a third reminder about a meeting that was already on my calendar, and I resisted the urge to throw my laptop at the wall. Some of us love to share, and we also value transparency. However, oversharing can be just as damaging as hiding information, so being aware of overburdening our audience is important. When drafting an email, one option is to go back and highlight any information that we consider vital for the recipient. Then, look at all the other sentences and decide if they really need to be there, or if they are essentially a chatty filler. A friendly greeting or similar is always a nice touch, but communications should not be full of lengthy explanations. Any complex points can include links to more lengthy information, should the reader wish to learn more, with a shorter “good parts” version in the email itself.

Brevity is Key

Just this morning, my daughter’s principal sent out an epic novel-sized email with updates about the week’s learning. I was interested and appreciated her efforts, but in my rush to get the day going, I had neither the time nor the energy to wade through so much text. When I see long emails with paragraphs of information, my brain just shuts down. In fact, my guess is that everyone’s tolerance for long emails has probably decreased during the pandemic. For that reason, striving to be brief with only the most important information is a skill that school staff should strive to adopt, if possible. An easy strategy to facilitate a quick message is to put any relevant information into bullet points rather than paragraphs. If the bullet points exceed more than a couple of sentences, think about how much can be cut for maximum clarity. Though it may seem counterintuitive, the more we write, the less clear we become.

Right now, everyone’s time and patience is wearing thin. We’re learning to navigate new systems as we focus on ensuring that our students adapt to online learning with increasing success. When it comes to effective communication, less is more. Instead of piling everyone’s figurative plates higher and higher with needless distractions, taking the time to focus on what matters will pay off as we continue this unprecedented school year.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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