For the first time ever in the Freeman school district, a classified-staff member—bus driver Hal Patton—is slated to kick off the district’s professional development session by sharing his story as an employee, parent, and grandparent in the Rockford, Wash., school community. Last year, at the Gorham school district in Gorham, Maine, every classroom received new sets of literature that better reflect the diverse student body. And the Calhoun City schools in Calhoun, Ga., recently created a new position: teacher-leader developer.
On the surface, none of these anecdotes appears connected. But they all share one important factor: Each happened as a result of a staff survey.
In all three cases, school or district administrators not only made the time to solicit employees’ feedback but then took steps to follow up and act on that input. They may not have been monumental changes to policy or practice, but they nonetheless sent this critical message to staff: Your voices count.
Giving staff a voice matters
There’s strong evidence to demonstrate that when employees—teachers in particular—feel like their input matters, they’re more likely to stay in their jobs. And holding onto teachers and other essential staff is a critical priority as schools in many communities continue to experience shortages and high rates of turnover.
In a 2019 dissertation on the influence of teacher empowerment as an effective strategy for retaining teachers, Pennsylvania State University doctoral student Jing Liu wrote: “When teachers considered themselves as effective in instruction and empowered in instructional-related issues, they had greater intention to stay in their schools.”
Richard M. Ingersoll, a researcher who has studied the teaching profession for decades, made a similar assertion in a recent interview: “One of the main factors is the issue of voice, and having a say, and being able to have input into the key decisions in the building that affect a teacher’s job … it’s very highly correlated with the decision whether to stay or leave.”
Ingersoll went a step further, making the connection between teacher empowerment, improved retention, and positive influence on student achievement. In a wide-reaching study spanning four years, 16 states, and more than 25,000 schools, Ingersoll and his associates found that in schools where teachers possessed higher levels of instructional leadership and decisionmaking authority, students demonstrated higher proficiency on state assessments in both math and English/language arts.
Estes Elementary in Kentucky’s Owensboro Independent school district participated in Ingersoll’s analysis, and its principal, Shari Flagg, reflected on the benefits of teachers’ voices. “Estes Elementary’s teachers are involved in a variety of school decisions, from developing our current schoolwide behavior-management program, to analyzing our results and interviewing new hires,” she said. “This involvement of our teachers is one of the reasons why our school—at 95 percent free and reduced lunch—is such a high-performing school.”
Surveys are not a new tool for gauging employee satisfaction and getting valuable feedback. But their use during the pandemic rose significantly, due largely to greater access to digital technology and employers’ increased interest in checking in on employee morale. Along with that uptick came concerns about survey fatigue, as acknowledged by many industry experts, including market researchers at Qualtrics.
Estes Elementary's teachers are involved in a variety of school decisions, from developing our current schoolwide behavior- management program, to analyzing our results, and interviewing new hires.
Even with worries about employees ignoring surveys, asking staff for their honest feedback and opinions through surveys has high potential for making a positive impact when used judiciously. Education Week sought out human-resources experts and district leaders who consider employee surveys an indispensable part of a retention tool kit. They shared some strategies for getting the most out of them.
Lean on personalized and interactive surveys
Heather J. Perry, the superintendent for the Gorham school district, is a firm believer in the power of employee surveys, using them routinely to gain useful insight. But she steers away from surveys created outside the school system or community.
“Outside surveys pretty much fall on deaf ears—people are surveyed out,” she said.
The district has, however, used a third-party provider’s digital survey product that allows employees to anonymously respond to a general question through the company’s software system and then rate their co-workers’ responses.
“It produces some great results that help our principals gauge [work culture] climate. A lot of our [diversity equity inclusion] work has been driven almost entirely on the basis of these surveys,” said Perry. One concrete example was the move to diversify classroom literature—a recommendation that came from the staff.
When seeking feedback on a specific topic, the Gorham district relies on internally developed and highly targeted surveys that require employees to answer only a few questions, mostly via email. Perry said the district aims for, and typically gets, about 50 percent participation. The high rate of participation, she said, is directly related to what employees see happen after surveys are done.
“We are very transparent about how we use the data, and they see us using it,” Perry said. “We also listen to their voices.”
Kelly Coash Johnson, the executive director for the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, supports the use of personalized surveys to get meaningful information from employees.
“We’re encouraging each and every individual school district to run that type of survey,” she said. “Find out what teachers truly want.”
Coash Johnson said it’s better to tailor and prioritize survey questions that will yield results that are specific to the needs of a district’s employees.
“I think if you ran [employee-satisfaction] surveys in individual school districts, you would find they want more than just pay,” she said. “Maybe it’s something as simple as one extra planning period or not to do lunch duty. Things that might be simple fixes.”
Keep the process employee-centric
When employees believe the survey process is fair and meaningful, they’re more likely to respond accordingly. Conversely, if they look at it as simply one more task to complete in an already busy schedule, they’re less likely to respond to it thoughtfully—if at all. They are also less likely to take part in surveys when they haven’t seen evidence that employers will act on the results, according to a McKinsey report that analyzed more than 20 academic articles on the topic.
“If it’s an important survey, we provide time set aside during the [work] day—at a staff meeting, etcetera,” Perry said. “Not while they’re at home.” In another effort to respect employees’ time, Perry said the district rarely administers internal surveys that contain more than two questions.
Randy Russell, the superintendent of the Freeman school system, says his district not only shares [anonymous] responses to an annual employee survey on the district website but also uses the feedback in long-range strategic plans.
It’s impossible to quantify the effects of this practice. But even simple, low-stakes decisions based on employee input—like having classified employees share what it’s like to be part of the school community during a professional development day—may have a lasting impact on staff morale and retention.
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why You Should Survey Your School Staff