How education leaders are using technology to build cultures of empathy

Dr. Ann Skelcher

It’s 7 p.m. The chairs are out, the signage placed, the muffins arranged and the green light of the coffee urn is finally on. We sit and wait for the public to arrive. Tonight’s focus is on making changes to our student reporting process, and how to communicate more effectively about student learning and parent support. We’ve advertised this meeting in the newsletter and on the website. If it weren’t the late 1990s, we would have tweeted it too. The topic is so important, we think that parents will be inspired to attend. But when 7 pm arrives and only five parents have joined, we’re left wondering whether the subject actually matters to the community.

Looking back through the lens of a 34-year career in education, had we stopped to reflect on what was happening in the homes of our families during that time, we might have come to a different conclusion. Working families juggle a lot of responsibilities and sometimes the necessities of life keep even the most engaged parents from attending important meetings. Single parents often can’t find or afford the child care they need  to participate. And newsletters often get lost: either crumpled in the bottom of a backpack or overlooked amidst a crammed inbox.

As principal, I recognized the importance of community involvement. So, I worked with my staff to collectively rack our brains in search of new ways to bring more stakeholders into the conversation around necessary changes to the student experience. After a few failed attempts and some focused dialogue with staff, we shifted our perspective from a place of judgment to one of empathy: ‘What do we need to do differently to help parents engage with us?’

Hearing from diverse voices

Many actions resulting from that process are pretty standard practices in school districts these days. We hosted fun events and moved meetings into the community to make them more accessible. Our community noticed we were making an effort, saw that we valued them, and realized we were working to better understand their experience. Relationships grew, and over time, so did participation. Our attitude change gradually helped create a more cohesive and friendly school community.

Where we still struggled, however, was in bringing diverse voices into meaningful group conversations. Despite the good work we’d done to engage people, it was still hard for many to attend meetings. For those who did attend, fear kept some  from speaking up and participating in the decision-making process.

I reflect on my past now from a place of understanding. In my current career as a Senior Engagement Consultant with ThoughtExchange, I see how school districts are overcoming communication challenges by finding new ways to connect with people and build their community on a foundation of empathy.

The ‘me of 20 years ago’ would have scoffed at that idea. How can people come together, learn from each other and build empathy online? But I have learned that technology can help leaders bring their community together.

How technology can create empathy at scale

Hearing from a wide range of voices has always been a challenge for school districts, and a goal that has been largely impossible—until recently. Today’s technology is giving educators and their communities new ways to approach challenging issues.

The ‘me of 20 years ago’ would have scoffed at that idea. How can people come together, learn from each other and build empathy online? But I have learned that technology can help leaders bring their community together. Here’s how.

1) Building participation

Today’s parents want to be more engaged than ever, but they have less time to participate in person. Getting people to show up at public meetings has never been more difficult, and those who do show up can get drowned out by louder voices in the room.

Using mobile and online technology to connect with people is convenient and can dramatically increase the number of stakeholders school districts can reach. It can also increase the diversity of perspectives captured by getting beyond the loudest voices and giving people an equal opportunity to participate.  

By letting people participate in a way that fits their busy lives, you demonstrate respect and empathy. What’s more, by providing meaningful opportunities for participation, you show people their input is valued. Because of that, they are more likely to respond to the next invitation to engage.

2) Creating safe space

One of the biggest reasons people fail to speak out at public events is fear. People are often afraid to be seen or singled out because they have a potentially unpopular perspective that might create conflict.

They may also feel intimidated to share their views in front of a group of education “experts,” or generally feel uncomfortable speaking in public. And, while social media can provide useful ways to get people to look at information, they tend to be ineffective platforms for productive conversations.

Participating in a moderated, confidential online discussion lets everyone share what’s on their minds and in their hearts. It also serves to minimize peer bias, because participants respond only to the ideas and perspectives shared, without being swayed by who shared them.

Finally, the confidentiality afforded by technology can create discussions with minimal conflict. This virtually eliminates fear and creates the potential for civil, productive online conversations.

3) Hearing from each other

It’s no surprise that people who live in the same community can share radically different perspectives on the same topics. The challenge for leaders is bringing together these people who don’t see eye-to-eye around common visions and major changes in school districts.

Having people genuinely hear and consider each other’s perspectives in person can be a real challenge. Parents who attend meetings have the strongest opinions, and it’s the strength behind their opinion that motivates them to be there. The group with the capacity to attend meetings often shares a collective voice which doesn’t always represent that of the community.

Amongst the missing voices are introverts, parents who themselves struggled in school, single parents, indigenous voices, or the voices of people of colour. And we may not discover these voices are missing until we start to take action and experience resistance from other members of the community.

Technology provides the opportunity for educators to reach beyond a small and often narrowly focused group to the broader community. The safe space created by a confidential, moderated online discussion becomes the perfect place for people to consider other people’s thoughts without any influencing factors. Developing an understanding of why others believe what they do can result in people coming together around issues in new and unexpected ways.

4) Responsive leadership

When it comes to community engagement, one thing I’ve learned to be consistently true is that people are much more likely to trust and cooperate with leaders when they feel they’ve been heard. When leaders show they’re listening and are genuinely concerned about constituent perspectives, communities respond with increased confidence and trust in leadership. Accurately reporting back to stakeholders validates participants’ efforts and shows they play a valued role in the school or district.

Collecting, collating and sharing input gathered through public meetings or focus groups is time consuming, costly and an imperfect process. Even if districts could significantly boost meeting attendance and participation, the process of interpreting the data and effectively communicating it back to the community would make it impractical.

Comparatively, data from online discussions are easy to collect. And today’s data analysis and visualization technologies allow you to analyze the results quickly, pull out the top insights shared and use them to inform actions.

This both reduces the chances of community input sitting untouched on the edge of your desk waiting for you to find the time to make sense of the information you gathered, and makes it easy to effectively communicate back to your community.

The key to bringing polarized people together is discovering the interests and values that are behind positional statements, and where those common interests intersect.

5) Underlying interests

All too often, the discussions we have in schools and districts focus on differences of opinion.

The key to bringing polarized people together is discovering the interests and values that are behind positional statements, and where common interests intersect. Doing this in an in-person situation is nigh on impossible, and Likert-style surveys make discovering interests a guessing game.

Gathering more qualitative data through an online conversation and leveraging today’s best data analysis technology can help you identify common interests that can be agreed upon even by people who have vastly different priorities.

The key to student success

The ‘me of today’ feels so lucky to have the chance to see productive community engagement.

Technology provides educators and their communities opportunities to pose challenging questions, and give voice to many perspectives in a way that creates a dialogue that brings people together. For educational leaders and school staff, this provides the ability to develop plans and make decisions that are well-supported and thus highly impactful on the future of all students.

Community engagement is key to student and public school success – some would say survival. It matters now more than ever. The necessary changes happening require all stakeholders to participate — to truly have a stake — in the change process. Technology can provide that opportunity.

About the Author

Dr. Ann Skelcher

Ann is our Senior Engagement Consultant and comes to ThoughtExchange from a 34 year career in education, eight of which she spent serving as a classroom and special education teacher. She then moved into leadership roles as vice-principal and principal at both the elementary and secondary levels. Ann’s doctoral program in educational leadership centred on school crisis recovery and provided opportunity for her to look reflexively at the role of school leaders. As well, she has shared her work on school culture, parent engagement, and student assessment in BC, Alberta and Nunavut. Time with her supportive and loving partner, two grown children and four grandchildren as well as quiet time in the garden, yoga, and forest walks keep Ann energized and balanced.