Lessons for Educators from the Campaign Trail

Even from the bird’s eye view political campaigning, especially at the presidential level, is rich with lessons that may transfer to schools. Educators are often frustrated in how to reach and engage parents and communities and to build support and buy-in for schools and school championed causes. The 2012 election showed the masters of community organizing at work. Let’s look into their strategies and tools to find what can be mined for application in service of schools.

Data Speaks and It Is All Around Us

Campaign strategists have been able to mine the gazillion data points that exist about each of us to build micro-targeted campaigns. They know how we communicate and have multiple methods of distributing their message right to our ear bud, desktop or fingertips. Do we know the ways in which our parents and community get and distribute information – facebook, twitter, smart phone, word-of-mouth, YouTube, cable channels, web surfing? How does use of these tools vary by generation, neighborhood, education, income etc.? By strategically targeting our communications methods, and by communicating early and often, and then listening to what you get back and do not get back you can learn much. Which messages are forwarded, which are replied to, which never opened? Which links are followed? Which video clips are viewed? If we ask for volunteers, donations, or feedback what is the result?

Never Let the Opportunity to Ask Get By

One strategy for engaging parents and community is to conduct micro surveys. For instance, during parent / teacher conferences, or meet-the-teacher night, or on the website, or in take home newsletters ask a quick survey question; for example you can ask: What is the best way to inform you of events related to your child’s schools a) note in backpack, b) robo call, c) post on website, c) tweets, d) email, e) facebook post?

The underlying strategy is to never let an opportunity get by when you can gather information from your constituents. During student performances or athletic events, post quick question cards, questions-of-the-day or host an information booth. While you may have select audiences, you can use the responses to begin conversations, to demonstrate openness to community opinion, and to test ideas and perceptions.

The Ask and Commitment

Another important part of “the ask” is to get a commitment. Can I count on you to read this book to your child this week? How many times can you commit to reading to your child this week, every day, five times, three, what will work with your schedule? Can I count on you to give me a call if there are problems with the homework assignments?   

A commitment can help to establish buy-in and sense of common purpose needed for community building.

It’s Personal

Another important lesson from the campaign trail is to give a face to the individuals with whom you are communicating. I noticed those email from the President and First Lady that addressed me by name (and got it correct) and included a little tidbit that let me know that they were speaking to me…even amid the million other email messages I received. Direct messages from the principal and teachers to individual parents and students commemorating accomplishments, birthdays, a get-well note or “we miss you” when a child is out of school for illness or other reasons, or other forms of recognition can give the personal touch that builds relationships and loyalty.

Transparency: We Know and We Care

Did you notice that increasingly correspondences from campaigns cite your personal information about desired behavior? For instance, my husband received a post card in which a bar chart compared his “excellent voting record” to our neighbors’ average records. Wow, a little personal. Yes, but research says that this personalized compassion is highly motivational. So maybe a softer alternative is to cite the conference attendance rate for your child’s class compared to last year. As in; 75 % of our parents have signed up for conferences compared to our 95 % conference rate published in the annual report to the State and reported on the district website last year. Please sign up now so we can exceed last year’ rate in ___(Megan’s)___classroom.

Another way to say “we care” used by campaigns is to ask that supporters call a few of their friends or forward a message (the phone call is preferred for the personal contact). The personalization of the message brings home the request for support. In schools the traditional room-parents can play this role especially if the role and messages are telegraphed beyond the most active parents. A variation of making it personal is to “give them something to talk about”. Telegraphing good news messages and stories of successes, along with invitations to share opinions can help build community and link advocates for the school.

Connect, Connect, Connect: They Understand the Needs of People Like Me

One characteristic that can knock a candidate out of consideration is perceived lack of empathy. For those to whom we trust our children, true empathy can be critical. Contrast that with behaviors that may seem judgmental, bureaucratic and aloof. Empathy for their child and the adults’ needs as parents can go a long way to building trust and communications. While educators may think that it should be implied and understood, saying that you want success for the child shows shared goals and empathy.

Address Listeners’ Information Needs

A related way that campaigns falter is by only telling what they want to say while not addressing the listeners’ needs. As an educator I may want to tell you the rules of our school or to explain our budgeting process. But as a parent I want to know how to help my child in math, or which courses she should take next year, how to get the teacher that I want or how to address bullying. Explicitly ask parents and community what they would like to learn more about and then target communications to addressing their requests.

Know What You Want – and Ask Clearly and Often

Campaigns want your vote and your contribution (money, volunteerism) in that order. In schools we want parents to send us their child to educate, and to support their child’s learning and positive behavior. Educators want volunteers and champions of their cause. We want millage supporters and task force members. Educators should be clear in the types of parent and community engagement that we request. Part of being clear is to also to be respectful of our parents’ and community’s time, attention and resources. When we ask our parents and community to engage let’s be sure that they find it worth their valuable time and effort. Communications to our public should include opportunities to support the schools with a quick click.

Keep it Positive

Despite the surge of negative campaigning in the political arena, local communities find negative campaigns against rivals unseemly. No matter your thoughts about charter schools, private schools, home schooling, neighboring districts, negative campaigns become self-defeating. Aggressive negative attacks may signal an environment too aggressive to entrust with my child.

Engaging parents and community remains a challenging endeavor for many educators. These nine lessons from electoral politics can be put to use by education leaders as we reach out to build supporters for our schools, and constructively engage our parents and communities.