Did you know that a significant chunk of the “data” behind the U.S. News college rankings has been a college’s “reputation” among administrators at other colleges and universities? How other educators look at a college thus matters in a substantive, bread-and-butter way, and it doesn’t matter all that much—at least to U.S. News and its readers, once the rankings have been published—what substance underlies the reputation.
School advancement, communication and marketing professionals, impelled by the imperatives of enrollment management and annual giving, tend to focus their efforts on audiences with a direct or potentially direct connection to their schools: parents and guardians, alums, and of course prospective families.
But stop for a moment. It’s likely that last week some of your school’s administrators and perhaps teachers were at the NAIS Annual Conference in Baltimore. Find them, and ask them which schools impressed them at that meeting, which schools are “hot” in the NAIS community. And then ask them why.
They will have answers, probably expressed with a degree of awe and even envy. There are schools that are riding the crest of the wave of “innovation” and “excellence” at any given time, and school folks in Florida and Oregon and Texas know which these schools are in Massachusetts or Georgia, Ohio or California. These are schools that have realized that by telling their stories to a national audience—by proposing multiple sessions at education conferences, by shining a spotlight on their best bloggers and tweeters until these individuals become “thought leaders”—they can elevate the profile and reputation of their schools. Fine, you may say, but what does it matter if a day school in New Mexico is famous among educators in Washington State?
It matters a great deal. Independent school educators talk to one another. We share our best ideas, and we also tend to change jobs and locations. When I encounter someone from a particular city, I say, “Hey, I hear St. Basalt’s School there is doing some amazing stuff.” When they return to their city, they know that St. B’s is on the map in my world, and when they talk to others in their community, educators or non-educators, it’s quite possible that St. Basalt’s will be a part of the conversation. A national reputation returns home, indirectly, to become a regional reputation.
An important part of the work I do, as head of an international consortium of over 160 schools committed to developing new and better ways of providing effective learning experiences to students, is to help schools understand the importance of explaining unfamiliar practices—“innovative” and “independent” curricula—to their key audiences. Increasingly I am realizing that one way that our members can advance not only their work and ours but also their own institutional brands is to engage their best people in telling their school’s best stories to other educators. Our Independent Curriculum Group, for example, offers guest blog opportunities, webinars, podcasts, and events where teachers and administrators can showcase their best ideas, an easy (and low-cost) way for schools to enhance their reputation in the community of schools and educators.
When people see your school’s name on a byline or the title slide of a presentation or webinar deck, whether the medium is provided by NAIS or the Independent Curriculum Group or TABS or the Progressive Education Network or the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, they take note. If the readers or viewers are from far away, that’s building a national reputation. If they are in your own region or your city, they see your school as laying claim to expertise, to worthiness, in a particular area; they may be your competitors, but they cannot avoid acknowledging that your school is doing something well. Sooner or later this will add to your local reputation.
We all want our schools to be understood as great by families and students, but having your school seen as interesting, exciting, or maybe even great by experts in our own field is just as valuable. Your own school is a member of numerous education-focused organizations that provide opportunities for promotion-by-participation, and the more you can do to encourage your best teachers, writers, thinkers and presenters to put your school’s name out there—along with their own—the better the potential outcomes for your school. Look into this, I urge you. There is little risk, little cost beside sweat equity, and the payoff can be great.
Peter Gow is executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group, a community of schools with a shared commitment to advancing educational practice through mission-aligned, school-created teaching and learning experiences. Contact Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @pgow.