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Education Leaders: Don't Discount the Importance of School Culture

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Teachers and their leaders all, as human beings, naturally repeat behaviors and decisions out of habit. There is a comfort in doing the same thing over and over, a security and assurance that comes with habit. A successful implementation of a new student information system, or schedule, for example, offers feedback to the one leading the change that the method "worked." A successful lesson in a classroom, one that yielded high scores for the students, offers feedback to the teacher that the lesson "worked." A requirement that the Common Core Standards be adopted and courses be redesigned "worked".  But what does successful mean?

What measures are being used when deciding something "worked"? Adopting new behaviors is hard. It requires attention, concern, revision, letting go, beginning anew...all can be energizing or exhausting. The manner in which we approach this process makes the difference.  

How Well Will We Handle Change?
Often, change arrives as a decision that has been made for us. School district leaders are required to implement a new law or regulation.  School building leaders receive a directive emanating from a new board policy or from a central office decision. Teachers receive a message that there will be change coming.  They may feel confused, resentful or disempowered.

Gruenert & Whitaker, in their book School Culture Rewired, list 12 aspects of school culture.  They are: student achievement, collegial awareness, shared values, decision making, risk taking, trust, openness, parent relations, leadership, communication, socialization, and organization history (pp.66-77). Using these aspects as a guide or a check might help. Questions (based upon these 12 aspects of school culture) can help us identify where strengths exist in the organization, and where there are opportunities for improvement:

  • How can we design this change to positively affect student achievement?
  • How can teachers' awareness of each other's work be used to help move the change forward?
  • How confident are we that our values are clear and shared values?
  • How inclusive are we when planning the implementation process?
  • How comfortable are we with taking risks?  If not comfortable, what needs to change to make risk taking a comfortable practice?
  • What are trust levels in the building/district among colleagues, and between teachers and leaders?
  • How welcoming are we of others' opinions, particularly concerning instruction?
  • How welcoming and inclusive of we are of parental input regarding classroom instruction and practices?
  • How is the practice of challenging ineffective teaching by the leader and by colleagues handled?
  • What is the practice for helping new faculty to become part of the organization?
  • How is continuous improvement valued? 

Why Change Can Look Successful But Has Unintended Consequences
A revision in the schedule, or a new student information system, for examples, can be instituted and followed with no apparent problems. But, if trust levels are low, inclusion and sharing are not generated, a reconnection to values and purpose is not made with intentionality, and a shared process is not clear to everyone, then a minor revision takes greater than expected importance. Trust will be eroded, communication fractured, frustrations rise, and for some, the steam will run out of their engines. These unintended consequences affect how people feel and negatively impact the organization's culture.  When people don't feel connected or valued, an organization steps away from being a healthy, energetic learning environment.

When Is It Too Much?
Another consideration often left out of the implementation conversation is...what goes?  Unrelenting and simultaneous newness in practice, rule, method, and/or policy is backbreaking....and heartbreaking.  Don't forget to search for what can be left behind to make room for the newness. Because schools are complex organizations, made up of individuals who have different roles, views, and opinions, when implementing change, creating opportunities to hear from those affected by the change can help inform the oft ignored decision about what to eliminate or abandon. This is an ongoing conversation that is best had between colleagues, as well as among teachers and supervisors, between building leaders and district office, between school leaders and parents, and sometimes even among the students. There are rules, policies, practices and lessons whose time is past. 

Critical Thinking and Change
Change requires adults to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking is a valued aspect of student learning.  It can only improve the classroom practice if the adults in the organization engage in it as well. 

Much of our thinking is not a solo activity; it involves other people.  We move forward by interacting attentively with other people; without them, we are lost as learners.  Critical thinking relies heavily on being able to listen with respect to what others have to say (Browne & Keeley p.9)

Knowledge and Heart
Knowing the questions to ask and knowing who is affected by the changes come from our knowledge of the systems and people we lead.  Behaving in ways that demonstrate deep concern and attention to the people engaged in change is a matter of heart. Developing and sustaining a learning organization capable of growth is one of the most important jobs of school leaders. While managing the tumult that comes with change, leaders value the people as much as the change. Then, we build trust and that trust will, in turn, support a willingness of others to participate, speak up, take risks, fail and try again.  Isn't that what schools need now?

Resources:
Browne, M.N. & Keeley,  S.M. (2012). Asking the Right Questions:  A Guide to Critical Thinking (10th edition).  New York:  Pearson
Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired:  How to define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

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