Summer Camp: Austin Independent School District

Learn more about Eva Chiang, Ph.D..
Eva Chiang, Ph.D.
Managing Director, Leadership and Programming
George W. Bush Institute

Our School Leadership team is working hand-in-hand with four school districts across the country to help them find, support, and retain effective principals. This summer, the team made visits to all four school districts to check in on their progress. First stop: Austin Independent School District.

Superheroes come in many forms— from cartoon characters, to action figures, and from firefighters to teachers— but few think about the people running a school district as superheroes. This summer we visited Austin Independent School District (AISD), one of four districts participating in our School Leadership Initiative.  We thought it was apt that it happened to be their “superhero t-shirt” day. Amid the Superman and Wonder Woman t-shirt logos, we found a team with a challenge similar to many superhero movie plotlines and real world organizations: communication. 

We know that communication is an integral part of superhero movies. It allows superheroes to work together, capture the criminal, and sometimes fall in love. And, like the movies, school districts need to work through communication barriers to ensure the children they serve learn and succeed.  In our School Leadership Initiative, communication is a key tool in each district’s work to improve how they recruit, support, and retain highly effective principals. AISD’s human resources team, superintendent, principal supervisors, and other district leaders identified the following communication challenges districts may face:

  1. Not identifying all the audiences that need information (it’s always more than you first think)
  2. Not understanding exactly what needs to be communicated to each audience
  3. Underestimating the amount and frequency of needed communication

For example, communicating about a new or updated principal evaluation system will differ based on the needs and perspective of your audience—aspiring principal, new principal, or veteran principal. The team also recognized that parents might want and need different types of information about the Principal Talent Management (PTM) Initiative, with special emphasis on how this work will help their children.

Communicating differently to the same group doesn’t mean the message is different, it means all communication is put into the appropriate context for the audience. There are many competing priorities in a complex organization, and school districts are no exception. It is critical for all department heads to succinctly tie their work back to the district’s overarching goal—helping students succeed.

Finally, here is what we know about communicating change in any organization: if you think you have communicated enough—you haven’t. We made the comparison to what it was like to be a classroom teacher, where many times we might complain to our teacher friends, “Ugh, but I told them what to do and they still didn’t do it!” All former teachers know that if the majority of your class doesn’t follow your instruction, the fault does not lie with the students. Instead, the teacher likely did not communicate clearly or effectively enough.

These communication challenges are not unique to school districts, of course, but school districts have many distinct audiences and lines of work that make communication especially complex. We examined ways to improve communication by making meetings more efficient, ensuring everyone felt empowered to make decisions, and enabling the right people to be at the table for different decisions.

This could apply to school districts when it comes to principal supervisors, as an example. If a district has multiple principal supervisors who are communicating new system approaches differently, the principals will likely be confused. That confusion typically trickles down to teachers and could ultimately impact classroom learning.

Communication also means earning buy-in from key stakeholders. Prior to our workshop, AISD identified when it was critical to include principals as part of key district-wide decisions—aiding in creating effective system-wide change. The district has implemented ways to get real, meaningful input from all of their principals on the work they are doing to improve PTM. During our workshop, while sharing surprises from implementing the PTM, a team member said:

Buy-in from campus principals at level meetings [was a surprise]. The approach meets the need of not only their own professional learning, but also the needs of our APs as well.

 AISD Director

AISD, like our other three school districts, is an example of a team eager to learn in order to better recruit, support, and retain highly effective principals— and ultimately better the education their students receive. While many may not think of those in the school district as superheroes, we consider their willingness to reflect, learn, and change as heroic!