Change is hard…like really hard. When was the last time you arrived at work and you were enthusiastically greeted by staff members that were asking for change? Chances are that it has been a while. Let’s face it, many folks are creatures of habit and moving change forward, even with its staff driven, can be a challenge. Just like in the classroom we have the folks that pick it up new ideas and run while others watch off to the side and others that are the little turtles that just need additional time. All of this remains true when you talk about leading and developing a positive school culture. It is hard work. From my experience, leading and developing a positive school culture is a long challenging process and it has its ups and down. Even with the guidance on school climate from experts in the field implementing it is another story as each building, staff, and community has different characteristics that make the implementation process slightly different. Considering all of this, here are the points I focus on and offer as advice for those seeking to develop and lead a positive school culture.
Rome wasn’t built in a day! I understand this statement but it still makes me cringe as I think about the lost time in moving slow when it comes to doing the right work for kids. However, I do understand the importance of having patience and that culture takes a while to develop. In fact, changing the culture of a building takes multiple years, especially if you are making a large shift in practice. If you have teachers that have been there for 10+ years, this process tends to take longer than if you had a large number of new teachers. As much as I would like, culture takes time as staff, students, and families need to spend a significant amount of time together to get used to each other and the new set of expectations. It is through time that the new expectations will start to become engrained in the daily work everyone does and it becomes accepted. So if you find yourself wanting to rush the process of having a deeply engrained culture of serving the whole child with high expectations…take a deep breath as you need to be ready for the long haul.
You can’t change a culture of a building through emails and by hanging out in your office. Leaders must get out and be present in the building. The same goes when it comes to committee meetings, data team conversations, and professional development that staff attend. You have to be involved so you can help connect the work being done back to the culture shift going on within the building. When you opt out of these opportunities to be present and involved in the building, you are missing out on opportunities to help reinforce the direction everyone is working towards.
Elementary teachers love to talk and connect with each other. Even if you aren’t at the elementary level, I would still highly recommend communicating continuously about the culture of the building and the direction the building is going. Just like the old art of storytelling, sharing the story of your building and how these new cultural norms impact students makes an incredible difference. One of my favorite ways to help bring the conversations to life is by highlighting a particular student and the positive impact the changes have made on them.
As a new building culture is being developed, it has to be at the forefront of the conversation and focus of all staff. This is something that has to be visited throughout the year, particularly in the beginning of the year as you work to acclimate new staff to the building. During these times, I would also encourage you to share the why the need for and the direction of the culture shift. One of the exercises we did with staff at the start of the year was to create a large timeline of the history of our building. This allowed the new staff members to see firsthand the changes and needs for a culture shift within the building.
As with anything, you need to stop and reflect to examine if your actions match with the words and actions of the building. Over the past few years, my staff have become really good at this. They have even become skilled at calling me out if my actions or words don’t align. While some individuals might shy away from this accountability or blunt conversation, I really appreciate it as it holds me to our common agreements and the hard work we are doing to move students forward.
Cue Into Climate
Finally, I encourage folks to be mindful of the daily climate of the building. While climate is very different than the culture of a building, you can get at reinforcing the culture of the building by addressing the climate. A simple climate survey will help one examine the climate and perhaps identify some underlying culture issues. For example, an unhealthy climate characteristic or belief a building has can become rooted into the culture if left unchecked.
Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26.