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Mission & Motivation: A Rise from Research

By Net Assets posted 05-03-2018 09:23 AM


Leadership |

Taking the feedback hike together: How parent surveys improved leadership, staff unity, student outcomes and enrollment.

Article by Penny B. Evins, St. Paul School for Girls

From the May/June 2018 Net Assets magazine

Within schools, we discuss feedback, evaluations and growth with ease — when it comes to students. Whether in advanced calculus or on the basketball court, we provide them with formal and informal assessments on a regular basis. We measure their understanding, and we craft commentaries about their performance, habits and character. However, delivering and receiving feedback is less comfortable for adults. Five years ago, when I was in my first year at St. Paul’s School for Girls, I set out to change this dynamic.

The enormity of this undertaking became clear late one night. I was alone in my office, sitting with a thick binder containing 500 pages of survey feedback from parents. Using a simple online survey tool, we had asked them no more than 15 questions aimed at revealing where they were seeing success for their children and where they saw need. We left plenty of opportunity for open-ended answers, and the sheer volume of information was daunting. But there was no turning back. I chose to hunker down and read until I was done.

Truth be told, I felt a bit bruised within minutes. If I had been channeling my inner id, I would have given up by page five. The narratives and ratings were plentiful, and zingers and accolades alike filled the binder. Channeling a marathon mentality, I self-talked my way through the wall of my metacognition until I got to the end. Then I went through it again. With each read, I was able to think more clearly on a leadership level about how to proceed with this sensitive information — how to use it to create more trust, empathy and a unified leadership team. Despite anticipating that such transparent sharing could create some embarrassment and defensiveness, I knew it was time to take a leap of faith.

The process isn’t always easy — I still have many of the same physical and emotional reactions I did five years ago — but today, there is a sense of growth, comfort and strength among my colleagues.

What followed has since become an annual pep talk of sorts. As humbling as it was, reviewing the results of that initial survey led to a higher-functioning and better feeling "Team SPSG," as we call ourselves. Since then, we have surveyed parents (current and former, along with those whose children were admitted to SPSG but did not enroll) each spring. The process isn’t always easy — I still have many of the same physical and emotional reactions I did five years ago — but today, there is a sense of growth, comfort and strength among my colleagues. I attribute much of this to taking the feedback hike together. In fact, we look forward to poring over the results together each year, first in full within the administrative team, and afterward on a more aggregated level (filtering out some personal details) with faculty.

I always begin with a gentle warning about the danger of anonymous feedback, along with lightening the mood by sharing a zinger aimed at me. We then discuss the overarching themes and trends, pointing to them as authentic research in support of enhancements and shifts in our program. Inevitably, what follows is an inquiry-driven synthesis of the information, whether it’s colleagues offering sensible and sensitive support when a teammate takes a punch in the gut, or echoing someone’s praise.

Collectively and over the years, this process has proven both humbling and energizing. It has strengthened our sense of transparency, accountability and collaboration; prompted changes that have improved retention and enrollment; and empowered me and my team with the knowledge that parents will support certain decisions we need to make for the school’s long-term and short-term health.

We at SPSG realize we’re in a very saturated market (Baltimore). Data, metrics and quantifiable research have become integral to our ability to fulfill our mission. The annual parent survey is one of many ways in which our community participates in surveys and feedback, but it is the one that is most effective in returning us to the relationships that fuel our service.

Penny B. Evins is head of school at St. Paul’s School for Girls, with 437 students in grades 5–12 in Brooklandville, Maryland. Previously, she was head of the lower school at Isidore Newman School in New Orleans.
In Mission & Motivation, an independent school leader shares a core belief and/or source of guidance or inspiration. Interested in contributing? Please email In the subject line, type MISSION & MOTIVATION.

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