Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to:
- connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
- share ideas about learning and human development;
- spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy.
Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing.
Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School
Growth mindset, loving critics and a learning organization
As a community of learners (filled with and devoted to them), Durham Academy craves candid feedback and relies on open dialogue. Only by testing our assumptions and gathering opinions from the widest possible range of constituents can we know what we do well, what we can improve and what new ideas we ought to consider. Whether motivated by our understanding of growth mindset, our desire for continuous improvement or our fear of freezing the school in an echo-chamber, we need dissenting views, accurate mirrors and loving critics.
I have a particularly hearty appetite for feedback. Friends, colleagues and even the Chair of DA’s Board of Trustees have playfully teased me about this tendency. My hunger for feedback grows from a belief that each of us knows and perceives only a fraction of what's actually happening in the school and the world - along with a fundamental faith that knowing and perceiving more will help us serve our students better.
Everyone has blind spots. I think of it even more radically: we each have small "vision spots” that depend on our own position, experience and perception. Beyond these small windows, we are nearly blind. Feedback helps - by borrowing and coalescing the vision spots of others.
In recent years, DA has invested deeply in our traditional feedback channels:
- the anonymous, community-wide survey that informed our current Strategic Plan,
- the anonymous end-of-year Parent Satisfaction survey,
- the anonymous FCD student behavior and attitude survey that informs our wellness programming
- the anonymous Lower School student Youth Voice Project survey from Stop Bullying Now.
- the anonymous feasibility study assessing the case for support of our Middle and Upper school construction projects
- the anonymous student course evaluation surveys – now required for every Middle and Upper School class.
We have also instituted several new channels in recent years:
- Senior Exit Interviews with every graduating student
- our anonymous Net Promoter survey,
- the Mission Skills Assessment, targeting 6 non-cognitive constructs in our Middle Schoolers: creativity, curiosity, ethics, resilience, teamwork and time management.
- the anonymous NAIS Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism survey,
- our twice-annual (non-anonymous) Parent Teacher Feedback Form
Frequent questionnaires can lead to diminishing response rates and complaints of “survey fatigue.” We get it – and have tinkered, shortened, or even suspended some surveys in our attempt to find the right balance. After 5 schoolwide feedback surveys in 12 months, for example, we suspended last June’s Parent Satisfaction survey. It will return this June. While each of our feedback instruments has advantages and limitations, they all aim at the same target: giving us clear, candid, comprehensive feedback on our work.
Of course, the most common, timely, useful and treasured feedback needs no survey. It happens through direct conversation in real time between actual people. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the many channels available to parents if they have questions, complaints or suggestions:
- Teachers, advisors and coaches are the most direct and helpful audience for parent feedback. They can make real adjustments right away. They need and deserve to understand the experience of their students. As we found with the Parent Teacher Feedback Form, they crave responses and remain eager to use them to improve their practice and cater their work wherever possible individual children and families.
- Academic leaders convene teams of teachers in each division to improve curriculum and instruction. They have a broader view and responsibility for their areas (e.g., LS literacy, MS science, US history, etc.) and can often offer perspective on our academic program.
- Directors of our PS, LS, MS, US or our various departments. Christian Hairston-Randleman, Carolyn Ronco, Jon Meredith and Lanis Wilson are among the most frequent and helpful recipients of feedback from parents. Don’t be surprised if they begin by asking “Have you spoken already to the teacher about this?” They (like our directors of admissions, athletics, information technology, diversity and multicultural affairs, business services, and development) appreciate learning anything that can improve their teams.
- As Associate Head and Head of School, Lee Hark and I remain open to feedback from all quarters. The recently-appointed Kristen Klein, who will succeed Lee and begin in July, will offer a fresh set of eyes and ears to our institution. All three of us will guide most people to have direct conversations with those most locally involved in a situation. But we are grateful to know the good, bad and ugly about DA and love transforming feedback into tangible improvement in the school.
- As Chair of DA’s Board of Trustees, Brendan Moylan leads 25 trustees (24 of them current parents or grandparents) as they plan the long-term future of Durham Academy. Those with feedback about me specifically (the board’s single employee) are welcome to share it directly with Brendan.
- DA’s Parents Council and President Caroline Rogers welcome feedback as well. Pairs of Parents Council representatives meet monthly with each school director. Caroline and I discuss topics regularly. Parent Council committee leaders dialogue with DA administrators throughout the year.
I’d like to underline the advantages of direct (rather than diagonal, survey-mediated, or anonymous) feedback. A human conversation - whether in person, on the phone or via email - leads to faster, more personalized, more comprehensive and more lasting improvement than can any data point in a survey. With the opportunity to understand the source of the concern, ask clarifying questions, co-create solutions and continue a dialogue over time, we are far more likely to strengthen our school and its programs. Most importantly, we’re more likely to solve the problem presented by the person responsible enough to share it directly.
We remain grateful to every single DA community member willing to share praise, critiques and questions with us. The next formal opportunities to do so:
- next month, when we send our Parent Teacher Feedback Forms
- this June, when we open our anonymous Parent Satisfaction survey.
The next informal opportunity: tomorrow, when you see any teacher, advisor, coach or administrator – all of us trying to learn and improve every day.
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