Principal upset by staff response to school climate surveys

Q:  I’m your typical “open door” principal. I have a parade of teachers coming in and out all day long to share concerns or solicit advice. I don’t think I come off as arrogant or unyielding. I’m very personable! (At least I think I am, based on my stream of visitors.) And yet, whenever my district asks my staff to fill out annual climate surveys, my school’s response rate is consistently much lower than surrounding schools.  

After the last go-around, I sent my staff an anonymous survey of my own, asking why so few of them had given the district their input on school climate. The result: Most of them assume that I’ll either a) do nothing with the information, or b) “punish” them for any negativity. Ouch. So how can I improve the staff response rate going forward? More important, how can I combat this false (!) perception that I’m just going through the motions of asking for input — or worse, that I’ll hold their feelings against them? 

A: You can turn this around, and you’ve already started to do so. When you followed up with a second survey, you showed your staff that you’re self-aware and committed to tackling the problem. They responded because you came across as genuine.  

The first and easiest step is to make sure that there’s nothing problematic about the district’s survey or how you’ve administered it. For example, it’s important to consider:  

  • Are the questions designed to protect everyone’s identity both during the survey and when discussing results?
  • Are administrators walking around the room looking over shoulders while staff answer questions, or can they respond whenever and wherever they want?  
  • Do you tell them the school could face consequences if they express discontent?  
  • Are the questions themselves relevant to your school and its culture?  
  • Are the questions all multiple choice, or is there an opportunity for staff to offer ideas for improving processes?  
  • Who is preparing the survey? Some educators are suspicious of any instrument designed by their own employer and worry results may be manipulated. To combat this, many schools use research-backed surveys prepared by an external, neutral organization.  
  • Do the survey questions follow up on any issues that were flagged as problematic in the past? 
  • What happens after the survey results are computed? Are findings shared with all employees?  
  • Do you disclose the negatives along with the positives?  
  • Do you openly speculate about who may have made a specific disparaging comment? Even if you do it with humor, you’ll come off as punitive.  
  • Are you identifying specific actions you plan to take to improve the climate?  
  • If you can’t do anything about a specific concern, are you forthcoming about the limitations?  
  • Are you including a diverse group of staff members (at all levels of the hierarchy) in the improvement process?  

Here’s the harder part. A climate survey is generally administered once a year. It shouldn’t be your primary means of gathering feedback. Climate can change quickly, and it’s better to address problems as early as possible. Also, most principals say they have an open-door policy, but that’s not the same as actively soliciting ideas and feedback. It shouldn’t be the only way you discover how teachers feel. If it is, you’ll hear the perspective of a self-selected group. Many staff members might never make an appointment with you or even poke their head into your office.  

As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review points out, no one ever says, “I have a closed-door policy.” And yet employees often withhold valuable information or hesitate to question initiatives. The article states, “Think about it: How often do employees come to you, on your turf, to tell you the unvarnished truth simply because you’ve encouraged them to do so? The reality is, they worry — rightly or not — that you’ll take their comments personally, or that they’ll come across as disrespectful know-it-alls.” 

So how can you help your staff overcome those barriers? For starters, think about optics. Do you sit behind a big desk and “receive” concerns, or do you walk around the school and ask teachers questions on their own turf? Are you clear that you truly welcome and appreciate candid responses? When you disagree with someone, do you shut down the conversation or ask for time to process their concerns? Do you secretly hope they drop it, or do you circle back to close the conversation? Even if you don’t intend to take action, you’ll improve morale by admitting, “I heard you, and while I don’t think I can make that change right now, I did want you to know I gave it serious thought and really appreciate that you shared your ideas with me.” You don’t want them to view approaching you as futile. 

Along those lines, let staff members know what you’re doing to target identified problems, especially if it requires communication with your own supervisors. Make your advocacy visible. Your teachers won’t stick their necks out if they don’t see you doing the same thing on their behalf. You’re the role model. If you’re fearful about being direct with your higher-ups, your staff will feel the same way about approaching you.  

And when you’re working on a specific issue, explicitly ask your staff for suggestions. Try to engage everyone from new and inexperienced educators to those who tend to be viewed as loud or divisive. You can always reject ideas later, but don’t discard anything at the outset. Thank people for their honest feedback and be clear that you appreciate their contributions. 

Finally, revisit these issues at regular staff meetings and give status updates. Be transparent about both successes and setbacks. Admit when your efforts fall short or you need to retool your approach. If you’re humble and allow feedback to be part of the normal routine, it will stop feeling so risky. Your staff will not only complete the surveys, they’ll also feel more positive about the climate. 

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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