Why Surveys Are a Key School Leadership Tool

Principals, how effective was your back-to-school preservice this year? Did teachers gain knowledge and learn new skills? Sure, everyone enjoyed the donuts in the teachers’ lounge, but how did people feel about the professional development sessions that were offered? Were they effective? Did they meet teachers’ needs?


The past couple of years have been especially tough for educators, and I suspect that your staff’s enthusiasm about the new school year is tempered by their all-too-fresh memories of teaching through COVID-19. And, oh yeah, to add to your challenges, your school may not be fully staffed.  


So how are your teachers feeling?

Taking the Pulse of Staff

Your teachers’ feedback about how supported they felt during preservice and how ready they are for the start of school year will be more important in determining your school’s success this year than whether their supplies arrived on time or whether the building repairs were completed. But you won’t know how your teachers and staff are really feeling unless you ask them. And asking means more than simply asking a few questions in passing; it requires formally soliciting their thoughts.   


You see, for most of us, unless we use a survey to get below the patina of our perceptions, we tend to think we know what others are thinking—but we don’t. Sure, we are present and observe how others react to various conversations. We hear from some outspoken staff—“This was good.” “Why did we do that?” “How disappointing!”—but this limited feedback doesn’t give us the data we truly need to analyze how our staff is feeling.


Simply put, leaders need to survey teachers. Create a survey of a half-dozen questions–more questions will reduce your response rate—and email it to staff. Good questions I’ve asked as a principal include
  • Can you give three adjectives that describe our days of preparation?
  • Name one thing you learned and are eager to try out in your classroom.
  • What should we have cut back on? What should be increased next year?
  • What surprised you?
  • Other thoughts or suggestions?


Allow your staff to respond anonymously (SurveyMonkeyGoogle Forms, and Jotform are examples of free survey tools you can use). When I did this practice as a principal at New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, my final question often said, “Thanks for completing this anonymous form. However, I would like to have a dialogue, so please share your email address and I will respond to you.” Typically, about half of the respondents included their email address in the survey. I made sure to follow-up with these brave staff members, and we often engaged in rich discussions as a result.


Of course, formally reaching out and soliciting teachers’ opinions should happen throughout the year. Just as you want to know how staff feels at the start of school, you will want to know how they’re holding up when, for example, the October Blues set in. And you’ll want to get their temperature on events that they’ve worked hard to plan. For instance, I always sent a staff survey to solicit feedback on our school’s Portfolio Night. I wanted to know about levels of parent engagement teachers experienced and what suggestions they had about how we might improve the evening. I found that asking, “What surprised you?” on these surveys encouraged teachers to be a bit creative and go beyond listing positive and negatives.


Similarly, each spring I solicited feedback from teachers about my performance, asking “What should Tom start doing?” “What should Tom stop doing?” and “What should Tom continue doing?” I found that asking start, stop, and continue questions yielded deeper responses than asking about my strengths and weaknesses.

Taking the Pulse of the Whole Community

Of course, it’s important to go beyond asking staff members’ thoughts; you should also gather perceptions from all the people in your school community, as often as possible. As a principal, I also used surveys to learn what my students’ parents and caregivers were thinking. I would send a few surveys throughout the school year, asking their reactions to Back to School Night; parent-teacher conferences; and, yes, Portfolio Night. I also used surveys to simply open lines of communication, so occasionally I would ask “What fun thing did your family do over break?” or “What book or movie do you recommend?”   


The question that always elicited the greatest response from families was, “How do you define success?” This question generated scores of insightful responses, and in fact, I used these thoughts in formulating my Formative Five success skills.


I’ve also used parents’ feedback to change course. One spring, for example, several parents indicated that they thought our ELA curriculum was stronger than our mathematics curriculum. I shared this feedback with our teachers and we made a plan to address parents’ concerns. Parents noticed that we took action: in the next spring survey, parents expressed their appreciation for our efforts.


Finally, at the end of each school year, I sent a survey asking parents for reflections on the school year, my own performance as a leader (was I was approachable and friendly?), and whether their child’s needs had been met. (I will be glad to share the full survey I used with any interested readers; just send me an email.)

How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?


Regardless of the time, topic, or audience I surveyed, the responses I received always gave me good information. Of course, I didn’t always like what I heard; sometimes, the responses were too critical, while other times they were too laudatory. Still, I was learning other peoples’ perceptions—and while those perceptions might not be reality, people act on them, so I needed to know them. 


Effective surveys are part of a cycle because we learn and then we share what we learned. After reviewing the responses, I would summarize the findings and share them with the group that completed the survey. That not only let them know that their efforts mattered, but it also created a bit of accountability for me. Publicly acknowledging what areas folks think need to change in the school greatly increased the likelihood that we would work as a leadership team to make those changes—or provide our rationale for not doing so.
Surveys can be painful because sometimes we learn things that make us uncomfortable. But that’s precisely the feedback that we need to hear.


How do you know what you don’t know?

About the Author

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences SchoolThe Art of School LeadershipSchool Leadership for the FutureFostering GritThe Formative FiveTaking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including “The Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership.