How to improve engagement with your school community
By Emma Westwood
Writer | Editor | Content & Digital Strategist
Tips on deepening engagement with your school community.
'Community engagement' is a term frequently used but not always fully understood; it is also a term that takes on different meanings depending on its context.
EdSmart speaks with the founder of Australian Community Managers (ACM) and Swarm Conference, Venessa Paech, to find out what community engagement means for K-12 schools, and how schools can engage with their communities even better.
EdSmart: When we say 'community' in today's climate, what do we mean? And what do we mean, specifically, for schools?
Venessa Paech: "The definition of community has evolved over time, particularly with the advent of the Internet. These days, when we say 'community', we mean a group of people bonded by a common thread or purpose. You can have a community of practice, of purpose or interest, or of circumstance or geography. Members of a community share a sense of belonging and have certain needs fulfilled by their membership in that group. Communities enjoy influence and can mobilise around a united purpose."
Schools sit at the heart of a number of intersecting communities they can harness.
"Schools sit at the heart of a number of intersecting communities they can harness – their location or geography, their student body, their teaching faculty, their parents, affiliations they may hold (such as religion) and specialties they may possess (like arts or sport)."
Similarly, how can community engagement be defined in the context of schools and why is it so important?
"'Engagement' is an overused word, often stretched thin across passive actions such as clicking a Like button. It’s dismissively thrown around – a box to check before doing something that was already going to happen, ‘engagement’ or not. At its worst, it’s a monologue to stakeholders with no intention of a dialogue."
"There’s a spectrum of engagement, which equally applies to communities in schools. Different individuals and groups will be intrinsically motivated to care more and take action about different things. Mapping where the desires of the school and their community intersect, and activating people within that area is the way to build meaningful engagement for all."
"True community engagement creates a valuable feedback loop with the ecosystem you’re surrounded by. It helps create strong customer experience, builds trust and social capital. It offers priceless insights that a school can use to create a tailored offering, a culture of consistent improvement, and it helps the school cement its role as an important voice within local networks."
In highlighting the importance of an engaged school community, maybe you could give us some hypothetical examples?
"An engaged school community is listening constantly – through a variety of channels and touchpoints – to its people: educators, parents, students and partners. They’re participating in and helping coordinate conversations on topics that matter to those groups, focusing on where they can add unique value or perspective, or bring people together in new ways. The focus is on the human rather than ticking the boxes, and there is more time and space for conversation that counts."
When parents or stakeholders are asked to do things, they have purpose and relevance.
"When parents or stakeholders are asked to do things, they have purpose and relevance, and they’re communicated in a way that best suits the people involved. There’s a culture of transparency and trust – people feel they can be themselves, they can champion ideas, there is evidence that feedback is taken on board and change is possible. The voice of the community is evident around the school in a variety of places – the connection should be visible and tangible. The school and its communities are working together to achieve certain projects or goals that they care about, which might extend beyond the school itself. Lastly, the school is able to draw on reliable insights from community members to inform what they do and how they do it."
"At a school where the community is disengaged, administrative requests (handouts, meetings, alerts, etc) are seen as a chore. Constituents feel disempowered and will likely become cynical about school goings-on. This alone may not be enough for them to leave but the bonds are weak enough that it may not take much persuasion. The school is unable to gain relevant insights from its community to improve their operations and there is no sense of shared value or investment."
How can schools capitalise on their communities and ensure they are staying fully engaged?
"Where many schools and other organisations fall down is treating engagement like a campaign. They run a survey once a year or get face-to-face feedback at a single event. Building relationships with their communities means pathways for ‘always-on’ feedback. Every day and every interaction is an opportunity to learn from each other to build better outcomes."
"Schools also need to wear the hat of a community member themselves, which can be challenging when they’re drowning in obligations that may or may not serve their ultimate aims. How can they show up and participate in things that are happening in their wider communities? Showing commitment to the community beyond their immediate needs is an important driver of trust, which is then likely to be reciprocated."
Where is the future of school communities and community engagement heading? And what role is technology playing in that future?
"Education is being reinvented this century and technology is a disruptive force. Learning institutions are poised to follow in the footsteps of other industries where trends – like distributed leadership, digital transformation and cultures of experimentation – are being used to produce better products, deeper relationships and high value insights. Developments in data will help schools get a more holistic picture of their communities and, in turn, they should be sharing datasets that can help educators, parents, students and other local community members build a sense of ownership in the school and their collective educational futures."
As learning has become more democratised and distributed, the traditional school model is under stress.
"As learning has become more democratised and distributed, the traditional school model is under stress. Community engagement can offer a way for schools to carve out a critical point of difference – a human connection specific to the communities that school serves."
"Technology also brings new challenges – how can schools ensure the human element remains essential as AI and automation grows? How can schools help their communities (and vice versa) with key technological literacies? And how can educational experts offer discerning assessments on the application of technology for pedagogical and social aims?"
If there is one thing a school should be doing to enhance its community, what is it?
"Listen to them. Create opportunities and systems for honest interaction and feedback. Without those, it’s challenging to know where you stand and what you need to improve. The best community engagement strategy in the world will get you nowhere if you don’t really know who your community is and what’s intrinsically motivating them. Get to know them so you can craft an approach that is integrated and aligned."
"If you haven’t delved into community engagement, active listening is the place to start."