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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gay

Don't do that Cultural Survey

Don’t do that Staff Culture Survey! Until you have read this. You can thank me later….

It seems to me that schools have taken on Culture/wellness surveys without much thought about the why? or the what? Albeit, with good intentions but I have also seen these unearth results that aren’t really applicable to the situation or the context of the school. Trust me, it only takes one poorly worded survey to destroy the school’s culture you’ve worked years to create. I’ve seen this pattern happen at too many schools, sometimes I have been guilty of suggesting them!

The Principal and leadership team sets out with the best intentions: to increase happiness, well-being, and build an inclusive culture at school. They feel that the best place to start is to ask staff for feedback on what’s going well and what needs attention.

And then they make a fatal mistake.

They then tend to grab a preset survey, often supplied or endorsed by other schools or the Ministry of Education, but this off the shelf approach often fails to measure what really matters for each school’s individual cultural contexts. They ask staff to spend precious time giving feedback. After this investment in time and energy by staff, at best, leaders see charts that only raise new concerns and often don’t address the central cultural concerns. These leaders are now stuck– and find themselves dealing with a whole set of new problems they weren’t actually aware of or trying to solve? Why? I hear you ask? Well, you shouldn't be asking staff questions about what you are unable to solve. Take for example, "Do you have enough time to do your job?" Now, apart from the fact that no teacher ever feels they have enough time, why ask this question if you have no intention of offering more time? If, however, you have a lot of bank staffing you may well feel justified with asking this question. The key point here is this. Don't ask questions you can't deliver an action on!

Another factor is the indifference staff will apply to a question if it doesn’t apply to them or worse they will apply the same thinking and interpretation of how they are feeling to multiple questions. Effectively diluting the root cultural concerns and these inconsequential answers can skew the results of the survey.

By asking staff for their opinion–whether it’s about school or what they’d like for the next staff function- you imply that you care about it, and create an expectation that you’ll do something based on what they have to say. At the very least, when you ask for feedback, you make an implicit promise to acknowledge it.

When you don’t act on what your teachers have told you are the most important issues they face, your school’s culture doesn’t just stay the same. It gets much, much worse. Futility turns to apathy and resentment. Why speak up if it won’t make a difference? Why invest in a school leadership team that dismisses you? The culture/wellness survey, meant to improve your culture, has instead destroyed morale and motivation.

I admit it has taken me awhile to see this. In summary:

  1. The surveys can have too much breadth and cover areas the leadership have no intention of revising. It simply isn’t on the agenda for them.

  2. Teachers, asked to speak up, therefore don’t feel heard. They now feel hurt. And this school standard of silence and inaction breeds dangerous resentment. By failing to make any changes, leaders squander opportunities to address the cultural issues they suspect exist and worse: They actively signal to staff that their time isn’t valued and their feedback is worthless.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.


Focus on your perceptions. What do you as a Senior Management Team see as possible issues surrounding staff wellness or culture? Therefore what do you want to improve on and why? When deciding on survey items (or eliminating others), ask yourself and /or Senior Management: What would we do immediately if this item scored low? If it’s not actionable, it’s not measuring something that matters.


When your staff take time to give feedback, thank them for it, but also, acknowledge the value of their responses, share the findings, and commit to taking action. This take as a degree of vulnerability on the Principal’s part but it makes teachers feel valued and builds trust. What’s more, this commitment becomes a force for change and a function for Principal’s and Senior Management to actually do something. Don’t want to focus on the negative? Celebrate what’s good first–and then tell people what you’ve improved.

Which brings me to my next point.


Don’t let surveys become the only place where teachers can give valuable feedback. Encourage staff to suggest solutions to problems as they arise, and ask Senior Managers to do the same. Invite questions during staff development days, foster open dialogue in team meetings, and ask specific questions. (“What two changes would make it easier for you to do a great job?”) Wherever the feedback comes from, the power lies in connecting any action taken back to its source.

Is your school following these rules? If not, you’re at risk of falling into the trap of inaction. Bring leadership together to reflect on how you can better create a culture in which your teachers feel heard and valued–and ensure that your culture building surveys are on point and don’t destroy the culture you’ve spent years building.

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