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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

The Principal Connection / Perception Is Reality

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      As a principal, I occasionally hear comments that hurt. “Why doesn't our school teach students how to spell?” a parent will ask. “Sometimes you seem too busy to have time for me,” a teacher complains. My immediate reactions? Of course, we teach our students to spell! And I always make time for teachers. But regardless of the accuracy of these perceptions—and their effect on my feelings—I need to hear them.
      In every organization, leaders must know how they are viewed by colleagues, customers, and anyone else with whom they work. This is especially important in schools, where interactions among constituents can be limited or perfunctory.
      School leaders can so easily become isolated. Despite the lip service paid to “instructional leadership,” more often we find ourselves fighting fires, dancing with massive amounts of paperwork, and sitting through endless meetings. Because we are so busy responding and reacting, we too rarely take the time to seek out others' thoughts. At most, we may gather the opinions of a few trusted allies on a given issue and then assume that everyone agrees with us. But when leaders implement a decision under the illusion that they know everyone's perceptions, they can make critical mistakes. That's why we must formalize the process and routinely solicit feedback and input—not just from our confidants and friends, but also from those with whom we communicate less often and even disagree.
      We need to systematically gather perceptions about our current performance and what steps we should take in the future. To this end, each spring I distribute a survey to faculty members that asks them to indicate what I should start, what I should stop, and what I should continue. This approach gives me the faculty's honest opinions about my strengths and weaknesses without making teachers uncomfortable. A few times each year, I also host “Breakfast with Tom,” which gives all faculty members the opportunity to chat with me over doughnuts and coffee. The agenda is theirs.
      Last year, I also engaged in a 360 evaluation—a practice that takes its name from the number of degrees in a circle, indicating that feedback comes not just from a supervisor but from all directions. I asked 35 faculty and staff members, parents, and members of our board of directors to share their thoughts about my performance with the third-party firm that conducts these evaluations. The firm reviewed the results with me, helping me understand not only how I am seen by those with whom I work but also how these perceptions compare to how leaders of other schools are perceived by their constituencies.
      It is also important for school leaders to know how they are perceived by parents. Accordingly, each spring I send out a survey asking parents to indicate what they see as our school's strengths and weaknesses; to share whether or not they believe their child's individual needs are being met; to offer their opinions about our Portfolio Night and parent-teacher conferences; and to indicate whether I have been supportive.
      In addition, a few times throughout the year I use my weekly letter to parents to solicit a single adjective telling me how things are going. Although this approach doesn't yield the rich data of the survey results, it can unearth an issue before it becomes a problem. Last March, for example, one student's mother sent me a terse response: “unfriendly.” That word is rarely used to describe any aspect of our school, so I immediately contacted her. It turned out that she was describing a recent parent-teacher conference, and that the teacher was unaware of her concern. I scheduled another meeting between the teacher and the parent that yielded a more beneficial outcome. Afterward, the parent sent me an e-mail thanking me for asking how things were going and arranging the subsequent meeting. At our end-of-year picnic, the parent gave me a hug and told me what a wonderful year her daughter had had with us, specifically mentioning how much they both liked the teacher! I can recount similar experiences each year.
      Good surveys raise more questions than they answer, and they take us out of our comfort zone. They provide us with recognition for the things we do well and criticism for where we fall short. Invariably, there will be differences between our own perceptions about our performance and the perceptions of others. That's why we need to regularly reach out and ask others, “Hey, how am I doing?”

      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 School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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