Busting Your School’s Culture

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By Steve Gruenert

There are few who would argue that any culture is difficult to change. But cultures do change. Sometimes they change for the better, and sometimes they drift into bad places. While most research tells us that it takes five to seven years for a culture to evolve, that does not mean waiting five to seven years to start. There are things leaders can do today that will begin the process; doing nothing means that someone else can. And they will.

Take a moment to reflect on what you had relative to what you have. Try to think about your school’s culture five years ago. How is it different today? Are people friendlier? Do teachers look forward to different things? Do parents give more positive or negative feedback? Now think about what seeds were planted or what events occurred throughout the past five years that helped to create the present culture? If you were not at your school five years ago, ask someone (you trust) who was. Is the current culture simply a collection of reactions to mandates and new policies? In other words, over the past five years, have teachers learned to become isolated, defensive, competitive, and maybe a bit cynical? Or, is the current culture one where teachers have learned to trust each other, learn from each other, and look forward to the next professional development opportunity? Again, what happened five years ago that made today possible?

School cultures are very slow-moving objects, but they are moving. Once in a while we can give them a kick. The best kicks come from peers, not leaders. People are more influenced by the ideas that come from people they respect and trust.

I am a firm believer that everything that happens has a story attached to it. I guarantee you there are teachers telling stories every day. That’s how cultures survive. School leaders need to tap into these informal networks and provide stories that glorify a past, present, and future that support the vision. Thus, one of the best culture busters is to let your best teachers tell the positive story.

No matter what a leader does, there will be stories told about it. Whenever a leader changes something, those stories become more important. Some stories will be supportive, some may not be. As the stories spread like a virus throughout the school, the climate—or mood—of the faculty and staff will serve as a barometer for the amount of pressure the changes are putting on the group. If the best teachers are storytellers that share incremental successes in a language that their peers will understand, the changes will be accepted easier, and the culture change will move faster.

Want to read more? Check out his new ASCD book

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