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'School Culture Rewired': An Interview With Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker

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It's that time of year again, and I will be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful to us educators.  New questions will begin in September.

This post in the third in my authors series - I was able to interview Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, co-authors of School Culture Rewired: How To Define, Assess, and Transform It.

Steve Gruenert is the department chair of the Educational Leadership department at Indiana State University. His research passion is school culture and climate, and he continues to engage with leaders at the national and international levels, helping them to think about the role of culture in school improvement. Todd Whitaker is a leading presenter in the field of education and a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University. He is the author of over 30 books, including What Great Teachers Do Differently, The 10-Minute In-Service, and Shifting the Monkey.

LF: I'll start off with an obvious question -- why write a book about school culture?

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker:

There is a force that is prohibiting schools from improving, and this force exists only in peoples' minds. School culture is the illusion of peer pressure for adults. If we can help educators realize that school improvement/self-improvement is a choice, perhaps more will take on the challenge.

We had three primary purposes for writing the book. The first was to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what school culture is. The second reason was to help school leaders measure their schools' cultures. Several instruments are provided to assist in determining the type of school culture they may have and how far it may be from the one they want. The third reason for the book is to empower educators to be able to transform the culture they have.

Another reason became clear to us as we worked with teachers preparing to become principals. Feedback from teachers completing the internship portion of the principal preparation program stated the discussions based on school culture and school climate had the most impact on their efficacy as a future administrator. Knowing about school culture gives them confidence to move a school forward as they realize the culture is the greatest resistance they will ever face. It is not until we understand culture are we able to change it.

LF: How do you distinguish school "culture" from school "climate"?

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker:

This comparison is necessary as we find many school leaders using the terms interchangeably. Culture is the personality of the group, which is influenced by the leadership, the community, the school's history, and the unwritten rules people abide by. Climate is the general attitude of people in the school relative to specific situations. Culture is our "brand." Climate is how our brand makes us feel.

Culture can be thought of as our professional religion, climate is simply the mood we tend to be in while at work. Climate is given permission by culture to allow members of an organization a range of responses to any given situation. For example, in some schools the culture whispers in teachers' ears to look forward to weekends and summer breaks. In some schools, Mondays are celebrated.

Climate is one of many footprints of the culture. It allows us to better understand the culture and perhaps leverage change within the culture. To change the climate one could bring donuts to school on Monday. To change the culture, bring donuts to school every Monday. Soon it will become an anticipated event. However, bringing donuts to school as a school improvement strategy will not change anyone's disposition toward learning.

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LF:  You describe several kinds of common school cultures in the book. Could you summarize each type and give a practical example of how they might affect the daily life of a school?

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker:

As a way to better understand school culture, and to visualize the type one may want relative to the one that may exist, we chose to juxtapose five cultures with a collaborative school culture: toxic, fragmented, balkanized, contrived, and comfortable. Each type is operationalized using the faculty meeting as the setting. We believe one can begin to identify the type of school culture that exists given the following:

  • Toxic School Culture - in this setting, some teachers don't show up, new are ideas shot down quickly, sarcasm and ridicule seem to be the primary tone with most discussions. There is an Us vs. Them mentality, students/parents are "them." There is a victim mentality that serves as an excuse to do nothing. Good teachers are uncomfortable and either regress to fit in or leave. Regarding conversations about improvement, toxic teachers want the school to improve, however, they define improve as making their jobs easier. In this setting. we're not sure who is running the faculty meeting. The negativity of the meeting will extend into the parking lot and classrooms.
  • Fragmented School Culture - at this faculty meeting most teachers are very quiet, there is a calm sense of apathy. Some are grading papers, texting, or checking e-mail as the meeting progresses. There is a "let's get it over with" feeling. Most conversations are framed around house-keeping items. School improvement is a topic on the agenda with test scores as the usual, sole variable that defines improvement. In this setting autonomy trumps collaboration.
  • Balkanized School Culture - teacher cliques are arriving together like teams coming onto the playing field, sitting together, whispering, and giggling at inside jokes. There is a competitive tone as members of cliques challenge other cliques to defend their opinions. There is an irrational defense of weak teachers when the conversations about improvement drift toward blame. In fact, the relationships forged among faculty members are more important than the school's mission. There are veteran teachers who seem to be running the meeting.
  • Contrived School Culture - there is an official agenda with rules of order being followed, attendance is taken, and each department gives a report. Most new ideas are coming from the administration. The principal leads conversations about best practice with little concern for local confounding variables; just do it. There is a feeling of stress on all teachers as the leader imposes a sense of urgency that feels more like panic. This meeting will not occur without the principal being there, and it is the principal who is leading all discussions.
  • Comfortable School Culture - in this meeting there is lots of laughter, celebrations, awards, comfort food, thanks, praise, and empathy. People tend to look forward to coming together and are not in a hurry to leave. Support staff are present and are acknowledged for their good work. The good teachers are comfortable and feel validated. Self-esteem and self-efficacy are strong. It feels more like a party than a meeting. There is little self-reflection.
  • Collaborative School Culture - this is the meeting that will challenge the thinking of all who are in attendance. There is a sharing of ideas - what works and that does not work, and why. It feels like action research is happening all the time. Teachers are taking notes, reflecting on what others are sharing. The shared stories affirm a vision that identifies the scope of relevant values and beliefs. All are driven by an intrinsic desire to see all students succeed. The weak teachers are uncomfortable. The meeting feels like a good workout.

LF: Much of your book seems to written from the perspective of actions a principal, as the primary school leader, can take to evaluate and change a school's culture.  What actions do you think teachers can take if their principal does not appear interested in doing that kind of culture assessment?

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker:

This is a most difficult scenario. The principal will have the greatest impact on what happens in a culture. To attempt cultural change without the principal will feel like mutiny. If a school's culture is in a bad place and the principal has been there a long time, the principal may not be the solution. A group of the best teachers may come together and conduct informal discussions about the future of the school and they might identify some hurdles to overcome. However, these discussions would need to include the principal and should not happen without the principal's input. Too often a small group of strong teachers will evolve into a clique, hoping to improve the school, but in reality may result in creating a subculture that divides the faculty.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share?

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker:

We thought using the term "rewired' was useful as it implies how we as humans are hardwired for socializing. Each of us strives to belong to a group, and that group comes to define who we are, how we work, and what we value. The concept of a collaborative school culture invites all to be part of something bigger than themselves; it is the ultimate professional development mechanism. We believe it takes a long time to change a culture, but it only takes two minutes to start. There are leverage points that find the school's culture vulnerable to change. Hopefully the book helps readers to understand these dynamics and feel confident to start doing something meaningful to improve their schools tomorrow.

LF: Thanks, Steve and Todd!

 

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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