Open Door Day for Teacher Feedback

How one principal opened lines of communication with Open Door Day.
By JoAnn E. Chmielowicz
October 2019, Volume 43, Issue 2

I was wiped out. It was a late Friday afternoon—the end of a long day. School had only been in session for two weeks, but like most principals, I was solving problems nonstop as we settled into the new school year.

Two teacher representatives had made an appointment to see me at the end of the school day, and I was worried. They showed up with a lengthy list of concerns, ranging from scheduling and teacher duties to arrival and dismissal logistics. Several of their problems were easy to solve, and we moved through them quickly. But then, from what felt like out of nowhere, came a list of other, more serious issues … about me.

Their concerns felt personal and harsh. After listening to them, I had to end the meeting because I knew I was about to cry. From a personal perspective, this day was one of the hardest I had ever experienced as principal. I felt devastated. However, I had to hold it together, because there were about five other situations I still needed to handle, and I couldn’t afford to melt down.

Game-Changing Advice

As I scrambled to put out one metaphorical fire after another, I got a call from a woman whom I consider a mentor. She could tell from my voice that something was wrong, and as soon as she asked me about it, the floodgates opened. My mentor listened calmly to what I had to say and then offered me some perspective about my teachers’ feedback. She gave me a piece of advice that changed the game for me: Use it as an opportunity to reflect. You can and will learn from it. Figure out a way to turn around the situation.

When our conversation ended, I went home to lick my wounds for a day or so. As is often the case for me, once I stopped being emotional and started to think strategically, ideas began to formulate. That’s how Open Door Day was born.

Open Door Day

Clearly, my faculty had things they needed to say to me. They wanted my undivided attention. They wanted to be able to discuss things that weren’t a crisis but still needed addressing. And they wanted to rehash some older items that hadn’t been resolved. I needed to create a time where I was fully engaged and completely available to them: no computer, no phone, just me.

I picked a day about a week later, cleared my schedule, put up signs, and emailed the staff about “Open Door Day.” I invited every person who worked in my building to stop by during those six hours I had set aside.

To say that I was nervous about the day would be a gross understatement. I didn’t know how things would go. I didn’t know what teachers would say. I just knew that whatever their concerns were, I had to really listen and be present for them. I baked cookies and set them out on my desk—teachers and food go hand-in-hand—and had prizes to give away to everyone who attended.

When the day began, I had only a few things with me: a sign-in sheet, a highlighter pen, and a pad and pencil. I never turned on the computer. I had my administrative assistant hold all non-essential calls and I waited. As teachers came in, I highlighted their names on the sign-in sheet to keep track of who attended. I listened to their concerns, large and small. I got some great suggestions, found out about issues that needed to be addressed, cleared the air on some misconceptions that were rolling around the building, and in two instances, apologized for inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings.

By the end of the day, the cookies and giveaways were gone. Almost everyone had stopped by, and I truly felt that we had cleared the air in our building. I left that day feeling the polar opposite to that horrible Friday; this time, I was elated. So many people stopped by—many just to say hello or to tell me an anecdote—but I was also appreciative of also those people who came in to address some bigger issues with me. Having a difficult conversation with the principal, especially about the principal, requires bravery. My staff were professional throughout.

Waiting for Feedback

I went home on that evening feeling like I was on cloud nine. But did the rest of the staff feel the same way? Or was I seeing only what I wanted to see? Did people actually feel better, feel heard, and feel validated? There was only really one way to know whether the day had been successful: I had to wait for feedback—and I wasn’t disappointed. Over the next week, I received nothing but positive and valuable feedback. Teachers loved having a set time to come in, and they appreciated the opportunity to speak openly. I knew I had hit upon something good.

Since that time, I’ve added an Open Door Day to every marking period throughout the school year. Teachers frequently ask when the next Open Door Day is because they want to discuss something with me. From a professional perspective, this has been a true learning experience and one that has made me reflect upon my role as a school leader. I have figured out how to slow down, listen with intention, and be the resource person my staff needs me to be.

I love Open Door Day. You never know what will happen when you open your door.

JoAnn E. Chmielowicz is principal of Irwin Elementary School in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

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