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Surveys Don't Build Trust...Leaders Do

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Schools are using surveys as a source of evidence to inform change. But, surveys have value only when asking the right questions, in the right way, reporting and acting on results. Surveys are designed to gather input. In service of our mission, they can make a real contribution. But even after collecting important and guiding information, the next step is to act upon it and make a difference as a result.

Professional survey developers know how to write questions that get to the information we need in order to improve practice. But even if we use surveys, they capture thoughts from only a moment in time. It seems more threatening ...or more mundane...to ask for ongoing feedback. Until our relationships are strong enough for ongoing conversations to be a supplement to the information gathered by surveys, perhaps a simple and open request for observations would offer a more complete view of the perceptions that exist about our work and workplaces. An alternative, or a supplement to a "moment-in-time" survey could be an old fashioned box in the lobby, an Email address on the webpage, or a social media page where people would either anonymously, or by name, share their thoughts and feelings about our schools and districts.

These comments, complaints, and suggestions are the information being held in the minds of the people we work with and for. We need everyone to enter the problem solving that is needed now. Once in our hands we should ask ourselves,

  • What relationship do those comments have with our goals for the building/district?
  • What actions are planned that relate to those perceived opportunities for improvement?
  • How will we address them?
  • Who do we need to work with in order to understand them better?

    This is the opportunity we have to begin to take control. Instead of responding to individual complaints, we can use the ongoing collection of information to plan, with our faculties and leaders, to target the prioritized list of observations made by our end users, our students, parents, teachers, and support staff. If we do this, it is really important that everyone know that their concerns are heard and addressed, if possible. Relationships can be built as trust is developed while we attend to the process with integrity. Encouraging ongoing submissions, without limits, paying close attention to the observations shared, responding in ways that communicate our seriousness about listening, and having open and honest conversations about change, will strengthen our relationships.

    If this seems contrived, let's consider if we have become separated from our sources. There are districts that still have leaders in schools who have been there for many years, who have extraordinary relationships with their communities, and are kept informed by their public, their teachers, leaders, and students, about the perceived state of the district or school. These are becoming exceptions and should be celebrated. But we are considering alternatives for those communities whose leadership changes frequently and relationships are always new with trust just beginning, or non-existent. And oddly, these are often the very places where surveys are used to gather feedback and consultants hired to interpret the results and guide the system forward. But, if the resulting process does not build relationships between the school and community through leadership, then there is no gain. The expenditure of funds was for show and frustration grows.

    There are well-researched, standardized instruments, that can be obtained for use as survey tools and they can reveal valuable information. But if the cost prevents us from purchasing a well-developed survey, it is essential that the questions are not what come first. If the questions are misdirected, they will yield answers that focus us in the wrong direction, and ultimately waste everyone's time. So, if we are going to use surveys it is very important that they be sound. As we gather information from which to plan improvement for our systems, we must be open, abandon bias, include others, and have the leadership-will to deliver it.

    Stay connected with Ann and Jill on Twitter.

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