School principals have this one shot, one opportunity to make a good first impression for a family that is coming to visit the school. A school tour is a common yet often misunderstood part of the school process. As many parents who have gone through tours will tell you, this is more than an opportunity to simply see what the school has "to offer", but it is an opportunity to make a connection with the school and the people there. School administrators need to use some of the skills pioneered by public relations experts in an effort to provide a complete picture of your school to the visiting family.
If a family is coming to visit it is important to know why they are coming. The answer is much more than simply "to look at another school". Parents have needs and wants, either conscious or subconscious that they are looking to fill. Parents and families have organic and social lives which they are looking to better with a possible change of school setting. You need to do your "prep" work before the parents walk through the door. Ask yourself the following questions:
Who is this parent? Research shows that individuals will be more likely to respond positively to a person introducing them to a new setting or concept if they are from a similar affinity group (Garrison, 1992). This may increase the likelihood of the prospective parent "liking" the person that they are talking to, the one giving the tour, and in turn might transfer that association to the school as a whole (Cialdini, 1987). Social media can provide a strong connection to this parent's identity, and it can help create a better image of who is about to walk through those doors. Are the parents travelers? Are they socially active or inactive? Are they technologically savvy?
Practical considerations: Have a parent or teacher give the school tour, and choose a person that most closely resembles the parent in affinity and interests. Also, if the parent is more technologically savvy (e.g. Millennial parent or an employee in a technology firm), propose all communications via text/email and not by phone. Lastly, if a strong interest is identified with the parent, make sure to tell the parent if your school does anything similar (ie. will the students have contact with the experience that the parent considers interesting/valuable/important)
Why is this parent coming for a visit? This is the trickiest part for most school administrators: try to ask too many questions, you will look like you are "selling" your school; ask too few questions, and you may come off like you are "disinterested" in the family. Casual and indirect comments over the phone/email can include: We are located [place], I can give you directions of you need or I am familiar with [student's current school], I know the principal and staff from over there. Answers and replies to those statements can help ascertain the parent's state of mind before coming. Are the parents upset at their current school situation? or are they simply in need of new school because they moved for a new job.
Practical consideration: The parent might be looking for a more traditional/progressive setting, the parent might be looking for a school that challenges their child more or the parent might be looking for a school closer to their home. In any case, it is important to figure out why they are looking for the change, without asking them directly.
During the tour
This is not just a walk through to illustrate the school's attributes, building, and features. The school tour is part advertisement, part information session, and part practice experience. The parent(s) and their child are looking to get the "feel" of the school, and to make sure that they are comfortable with possibly choosing the school. In a private school setting, the parent will enter the doors with a number of assumptions which they have built in their mind. This mental picture was formed with the parent's previous associations with the type of school you have ("part physical advertisement, part information session, and part practice experience. The parent(s) and their child are looking to get the "feel" of the school, and to make sure that they are comfortable with possibly choosing the school. In a private school setting, the parent will enter the doors with a number of assumptions which they have built in their mind. This mental picture was formed with the parent's previous associations with the type of school you have (When I was young, Catholic schools always had very high test scores" or "Country Day school students were always snobs to me as a child"). Whether accurate or not, these previous associations are real. The school's website and word-of-mouth marketing attempts are able to curb those issues. But in the end, there is no escaping that a biased individual is going to walk through your door...
Visuals: Are your school's visuals on message? Does a religious-based school have the expected religious imagery around the school? Is it done with a purpose, and not simply as a "decorative addition"? Can a stranger come into the school building and immediately differentiate your school from another? Are the students actively involved in helping craft the visuals in the school? Does the school's atmosphere "speak" to the uninitiated?
Communication: It is important for the family to get the right context of the school. The person giving the tour should help ease the visitor into an understanding of all of the quirks of your school. Are the students doing work on laptops on the flow in the hallway? This is not a sloppy unstructured moment that you need to apologize for, but this is a progressive, teamwork-oriented approach that students are benefitting from. When entering a classroom, teachers are to do more than the mere "smile/shake(hands)/share", they need to involve the visitors by extending the tour into their classrooms for a bit, or even having the visitor "participate" in one way or another. Students should also be talked to and asked to share what they are doing. This is especially important if the prospective student is present with their parent during the tour (affinity connection).
After the tour
The parent's next step is usually sending their child to the school for a "shadow" day. But this needs to be established before the parents leave. In a non-forceful way, if the administrator notices that the family has enjoyed the school visit, they can recommend a school shadow day. "We have an opportunity for you to shadow, and follow an 8th grader around all day".
If the parent agrees, it is important for them to write down their appointment day. Research from Dr. Robert Cialdini (1987) shows that people are more likely to show up for appointments when they write down their own appointments on a card... in other words, they "live up to what they write down" (Cialdini, 1987).
With the solid ethical foundation that this process needs, it has become important for schools to rethink their school tours. Schools need to ask themselves the pertinent questions, do the needed research on who parents are, and why they are looking for another school. All of this, coupled with on-message visuals and communication can help convince the prospective parents to move forward on their path to choosing your school as the one for them.
Garrison, W. A. (1992). The social psychology of collective action. Frontiers in social movement theory, 53-76.
Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence (3rd ed.). A. Michel.