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!
Dr. Frances A. Miller,