Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Are Teachers Afraid of Being Heard? Seven Ways to Address Survey “Response Fear”

“Response Fear” is a sometimes irrational skepticism of survey respondents who fear their loss of confidentiality. We can all imagine a scenario in which a feared boss uses survey data to explore the hearts and minds of his or her team. When conducting surveys with teachers and staff, it is important not to marginalize this fear as it is, in some organizations, a well placed fear. However, it is also one of the biggest factors (along with apathy) that hamper response rates of staff surveys.

We at the National Center for School Leadership are in the midst of our fall research study on School Climate and Culture. We conduct studies of this sort each school year with public school districts throughout the country. An employee survey is typically a significant component of our data gathering. Despite our years of experience in this, I am unfailingly surprised at one piece of input I receive consistently: teachers are, in some cases, very fearful that survey responses lacking confidentiality.

Our experience in conducting surveys with teachers is deep. Given that virtually all school districts who conduct surveys will deal with the distrust of teachers and employees to some extent, we put together the following list as a guide for schools and school districts to follow when soliciting input from teachers and employees.

1. Clearly Explain the Purpose of the Survey. When you ask for time from every teacher and every employee in your districts to take a survey, be sure to take the time to fully explain what you are trying to accomplish. If you are conducting a review of attitudes and beliefs, say that. If you are trying to understand morale, say that and tell staff why you are interested and what you plan to do with the information.

I have found that an explanation regarding your need to improve is helpful. Teachers and other staff like the idea of being problem solvers. People inherently form opinions and ideas about the organizations in which they work. Tapping into this vast pool of thoughts and commentary is, with the proper filter mechanism, and worthwhile pursuit.

2. Reassure Early and Often. The confidentiality of any survey needs to be stressed in every communication regarding the process. The confidentiality message should be succinct, clear and unambiguous. If you are promising confidentiality of all responses, be sure to underscore that point. Be clear about how the data will be used. Assure staff that this is about improving the organization and not sorting out “non-believers”, “bad apples” and the generally disgruntled.

3. Use a Third Party Administrator. We always act as a third party administrator for our members. It is our hope that with our involvement in the process, teachers see that this is not a case of the “fox guarding the hen house”. Primarily districts will use a third-party to administer a study based on the need for expertise and data management. Do not underestimate the important as well of having a neutral third-party act as your data aggregator. Teachers and staff tend to associate more credibility with those types of studies and feel more confident in the confidentiality of their responses.

4. Be Honest. The quickest route to destroying credibility is to be untruthful. If you are collecting information to evaluate schools (by the way, we do not recommend an employee satisfaction survey for this), then be honest and tell your staff that is what you are attempting. If individual responses can be reported, tell them that so they will answer accordingly. Usually schools and school districts spend a significant amount of time ensuring safety and confidentiality of response data. If there are any fears that are rooted in fact, it is best to be upfront with that information.

5. Summarize Data. Response data should always be grouped and never reported for sub-groups containing less than 3 respondents. This ensures that data users cannot apply multiple filters (e.g., Hispanic, Teacher-only, Specific-School, Specific-Grade level, etc.) to narrow response results that can only be for a certain person. Reports for survey data should never show response data unless a minimum number of respondents are included in the sample. In fairness, unless you have 20 to 30 responses in a sample, your sample is not statistically significant. Looking at smaller groups can still be very useful but when you drop below 3 respondents, the data becomes close to meaningless in drawing inferences about the organization.

6. Focus on the Need to Improve. Superintendents and principals who focus of their desire to improve strike a chord with teachers and staff. Again, our natural tendencies to be problem solvers kick in and we want to be part of the process. Be clear about the role that teacher and employee input have in your process and the value you place on their input. There is a wealth of improvement ideas in your schools. Acknowledge this in order to tap into it.

7. Have a Manual Option. People understand that technology can do a lot without our knowledge. I often hear of the fear that the computer system is tracking an individual’s response to a survey. Usually the district administrators will roll their eyes and groan when they hear this fear expressed by teachers, considering it as more unfounded paranoia. But, the truth is that technology can be used to do this. We typically disable the ability to match response data to individuals unless we need to tie response data back to student achievement data. When we do enable the option, we never provide clients with the ability to report at the individual level. But the truth is, the fears of technology stripping us of the confidentiality of our responses are not without justification. Despite our assurances of how we are collecting and using data, this fear can persist. It is always wise to provide a paper hardcopy as a backup for individuals who express their fears of the technology. Sometimes just providing the option provides the necessary assurance that you take confidentiality seriously.

Utilizing these guidelines can help improve response rates by generating trust among your employee group. If you still cannot get over the trust hurdle, you need to acknowledge that you have found, without looking at any response data, a major culture issue within your school or school district: A lack of trust.

Scott Wallace is the Executive Director of the National Center for School Leadership. To learn more about their services and how they work to improve school culture and develop school leaders, visit their website at