I can remember a moment in an administrative meeting when my superintendent asked those of us serving as principals at the time, “Who is responsible for your school’s culture?” Answering this question was challenging at the time. This was (and yes, I’m dating myself) prior to the time we relied on educational research to direct our thinking. When he shared research that pointed to the school’s leader as the person who is ultimately responsible, we were surprised. As my career progressed and I became a research and data collection geek, I discovered that the school’s leader develops, articulates, and models the culture within the school through collaborative visioning; the teachers experience clarity and uphold and support that vision through their daily work. When I use the word, “culture” I am referring to the norms, practices, routines, and traditions that provide the directions within and define the school.
My last blog focused on answering the question I am asked most commonly, “What’s ‘wrong’ with the schools where you work?” The focus of this blog is on leadership, as we explore the answer to the follow up question, “Who is ultimately responsible for fixing the instructional philosophy within a school in need of Turnaround services?”
As I conduct the appraisal in schools in need of Turnaround Services, the interviews consistently affirm the research. When the school lacks a common instructional philosophy, the teachers lack direction. The teachers express a craving for deep conversations steeped in data-based feedback regarding how to improve their classroom practices. The parents ask for clear communication regarding the state of the school as well as their role related to improving the site so all students can be successful. Students are quite transparent as they share their daily encounters with the low and inconsistent expectations present in the school, and how this impacts their motivation to achieve as well as their future success.
I applaud the school leaders who, after viewing the appraisal data, reflect on it critically and realize the need to work collaboratively to develop a common philosophy of instruction for their school. As each leader faces the difficult challenge of taking responsibility for every single interaction that occurs within the school, they begin to become empowered. They view data as a means for a conversation and a shift occurs as the role of the administrator moves from evaluator and judge to coach and co-learner.
As the conversations deepen, the principal is humbled as s/he learns from the staff on site. The knowledge, skills, and dispositions possessed by each teacher are valued and viewed as a treasure. Teacher leaders emerge and the momentum related to the improvement process intensifies. By the time I enter the school for my first professional learning session, the pump is primed and a majority of the school’s community is both eager and motivated to acquire whatever is necessary to improve. This shift in culture occurs because the leaders (both formal and informal) are willing to reflect deeply on their current practices. The real work begins as the leaders and teachers within determine how they want their school “to be” as well as how they will get there.
So, "fixing" a school's culture really doesn't happen. Instead, it is transformed.
What happens when school leaders question the data… or are offended by the results? What are the roadblocks and challenges school leaders experience that may impede this shift in culture? We will explore that in next week’s blog.
In the meantime, consider the culture in your workplace. What are you doing to promote or uphold a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement? Are there practices that are common to your workplace that explicitly encourage this behavior? I’d love to hear about them, so, don’t be shy… share them here!
This month, a colleague challenged me to blog for 30 days and I readily accepted that challenge! My blog series will address School Turnaround. Why a series of blogs?
When a school is labeled as needing Turnaround Services, the task seems monumental for whomever is involved. In order for the change process to be implemented within an organization in a manner where the change will actually prove sustainable, a 3-5 year commitment is in order. Knowing this, it’s fair to say that one blog post will barely address the effort that is needed. Oh… and don’t worry! I won’t take 3-5 years to share the series!
I will describe some of the processes used throughout the Turnaround process, as well as the many challenges and successes schools experience during this collaborative work. This first blog focuses on perception.
“Perception is one’s reality.” These are the words of my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Steven Houser who left this world too soon. They ring in my mind the moment I am asked, “So, what’s wrong with the schools where you work?” I believe most intent to ask, “Why aren’t the students demonstrating proficiency on their state assessments?” This question is posed to me by those who work in high performing schools and yes, by those who have attended school…which is pretty much MOST people!
Their perception is that something “WRONG” must be going on. Before I can answer, the inquisitor provides me with their best idea of the “wrong” that is occurring: It’s because the parents aren’t involved… it’s because the kids don’t care… no, wait, it must be because they are poor… or Black, Native American, Hispanic…or…just fill in the blank with the race of the students… I have thought about these answers and what they reveal… a lot! Clearly, a personal profile of a high performing school has been developed based upon the speaker’s perception.
In fact, the surprise is, there are schools where the student profile looks like this:
-90% of the students belong to a race that is not Caucasian.
-90% of the students qualify for and receive free and reduced price lunch yet,
-90% of the students are performing in the proficient to advanced range on their state’s standardized assessment.
These schools prove that proficiency can be achieved no matter your level of income or your race.
When my work begins in a Turnaround School, those within the school community also ask the “What’s wrong…” question. They are right to do so because before a plan for improvement is developed, the root cause must be determined. This is where perception meets reality. The root cause is determined by conducting a comprehensive appraisal. This deep dive into the daily business that is occurring within the school site is highly collaborative as all stakeholders’ perceptions are collected. All sources are consulted using a variety of configurations from forums to interviews to observations. School performance assessments and data are also viewed. All data are analyzed for trends and then, those trends are shared with the staff.
The amount of buy in that occurs as the administration and staff listen to the results of the appraisal always amazes me. At first, everyone involved (including me) experiences some initial discomfort when the “state of the school” is shared. Yet very quickly, one begins to see beyond his or her own perception. Deep conversations transpire, possible solutions begin to emerge, and a collaborative plan for improvement materializes.
The varied perceptions of those within the school soon morph into a vision of a desired reality the school can become.
So, what IS wrong with the schools where I work? …or more professionally, does a commonality emerge when viewing the appraisal data across ALL schools?
Without fail, one common factor emerges: A lack of a common instructional philosophy exists. In turn, the instructional language and routines are inconsistent. This impacts EVERYTHING within the site, from culture to practice!
For example, if several teachers in the school hold differing beliefs regarding the level of accountability and responsibility students should experience related to assessments, then consider the effect on instruction in the classroom, conversations held in the faculty room, and the challenges that occur during team planning sessions.
After I explain this to those who asked the first question, the next question I’m asked is, “Who is ultimately responsible for fixing the instructional philosophy within a school in need of Turnaround services?” We’ll examine this answer further in the next blog. (There’s that perception thing again as I hear the word, “fixing.” Hmmm.)
In the meantime, feel free to comment regarding a time when your perception was challenged. I hope I planted some seeds… and thanks, Steve, for planting your seeds of wisdom in my mind!
Dr. Frances A. Miller,