At first glance, it may seem simplistic to draw inspiration from Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’. However, King had an art for communication from which school-leaders, educators and teams can learn a great deal.
Before we start, I would like to ask you a question, how would you define what makes a school successful?
Quantifying how ‘successful’ a school is, can be a contentious subject, and depending who you ask, could come down to attainment, student self-worth or even how many students achieve degrees.
I believe that many of the metrics we use to define school success share a common root-cause; persistent communication.
Numerous studies show us that persistent school communication results in higher attendance levels (Epstein & Sheldon, 2002, p. 309), develops child self-confidence (Wairimu et al., 2016, p. 96) and increases student attainment and achievement of post-secondary education (Fan & Chen, 2001, p. 4). All metrics we attribute to how ‘successful’ a school is.
With research clear in the causal relationships between communication and the metrics we measure across schools - it seems only natural to ask 'how can a school improve communication with parents?’ This is why, I am drawing inspiration from one of history’s most successful communicators, Dr Martin Luther King.
Throughout his life, King is known to have given over 2,000 addresses including his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech which captivated audiences across the world and continues to influence to this day.
When we break down the elements of King’s speech, we can learn several lessons. Lessons that surely, if utilised by school-leaders and educators, could be a powerful way to improve school-communication.
King was a natural master when it came to using positive language, in even the most dire situations.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by their character.
One aspect of King’s communication that defined him from other civil rights activists at the time, was his focus on positive messaging. While King never ignored the difficult realities of life, he inspired people to campaign for a better society by painting a picture of how life might be, instead of how it was.
He brought the audience into a dream that talked about a utopia in such a way that people could, for a brief moment, live it as if sharing King’s dream.
It isn’t uncommon for messaging to be themed on ‘factors of fear’, but one of the criticisms of using fear in communication is it can cause ‘verbal-paralysis’. While ‘fear-tactics’ can accomplish certain goals, King’s approach has the benefit of inspiring action and uniting people behind a shared vision.
In a school-context, there is a lot to be learnt from this.
Firstly, we know that using positive messaging inspires people. Like King inspired activism, schools can use positivity to inspire and motivate the school-community towards a shared goal, in a way that fear simply cannot.
Secondly, King’s positivity cuts through the noise of bad news and feelings of despair with the ‘sticky’ effect that makes messages easy to remember and sharable among people.
When school-leaders and educators do this, they create an opportunity to unite the school community towards a shared goal. If, as an educator, your objective is to improve attainment or attendance - then getting the school community to buy into your vision, is vital - and creating a positive atmosphere will motivate parents and students to back you.
I have adapted the acronym of K.I.S.S. but it still applies: Keep It Simple Schools.
“We cannot be satisfied as long as a coloured person in Mississippi cannot vote and a coloured person in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
One thing King avoided was the use of jargon. In his entire speech, I can find no technical jargon, and for good reason too. King’s speech was written for the average American and he used plain language to deliver a message that was understood by everyone.
The same applies to schools and can be a particular trip-hazard.
To do this, it is important to understand your schools demographic. For example, if you have parents with limited English language skills, then the words we feel compelled to use like ‘Baseline Exams’ or ‘Progress 8’ - mean very little.
It’s white noise. Unnecessary and confusing.
So my rule applies - Keep It Simple Schools (KISS).
The most famous line in the speech, “I have a dream” is repeated eight times in the course of his speech.
“I have a dream.
King knew that vital to any important message, is reinforcement.
The same applies as a school-leader or educator.
If you want to be heard by your parents, or school-community, emphasise the key takeaways in the message. Emphasis can be achieved in a number of ways, repeat key phrases, bold important text or highlight the main points.
Doing this, draws the eye in and ensures focus from your audience.
King also captivated people, not because he had a way with words, but because he also walked the walk.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
King worked hard to gain the trust of his supporters and advocates.
He does this by backing up his words with actions. In the same way, people say ‘to lead, is to lead by example’ and ‘practice what you preach’ - we expect our leaders to be accountable to the same rules and standards as everybody else.
No one likes a leader who is out of touch with people.
When you, show parents and students that you are prepared to do as you ask others to do, and you lead by example, they will respect you, and then trust you.
Great communication is not an easy task.
Yet despite this, its importance can sometimes be ignored and forgotten. So remember, the research is clear, and when communication is done well - the impact can be profound across all areas of school-life.
Epstein, J. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Present and Accounted for: Improving Student Attendance Through Family and Community Involvement. The Journal of Educational Research, 95(5), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220670209596604
Fan, X., & Chen, M. (2001). Parental involvement and students’ academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 13(1), 1–22. http://pages.erau.edu/~andrewsa/Project_2/Christian_John/DuneProject/Child%20Success.pdf
Wairimu, M. J., Macharia, S. M., & Muiru, A. (2016). Analysis of parental involvement and Self-Esteem on secondary school students. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(27), 96. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1115884.pdf