Culture can be a major determining factor in the success and happiness of a school’s teachers, students, and parents. The good news is that a school’s culture can be malleable, and what leaders do makes a difference.
School leaders from across the country heard this message while participating in Leadership: An Evolving Vision (LEV), a summer institute of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Principals’ Center. Participants – including an AVI CHAI-funded cohort of Jewish day school leaders – benefit from lectures by education experts on an array of topics related to school change. One such thought-provoking lecture was on “Cultural Leadership for Transforming School Organizations,” by Dr. Ebony N. Bridwell-Mitchell. Here are some key messages about how to understand culture which she shared:
- There is no such thing as one school culture. Children, teachers, and the surrounding community where the school operates each have their own unique culture. Instead of referring to culture in a vague, broad sense, it is more productive to be specific about which culture you have in mind.
- The stronger the culture, the greater the return. Some might say, “Culture? Shouldn’t you focus on hard skills?” But there is research from the business world which supports the fact that focusing on building culture can increase the overall effectiveness of the organization.
- It is important to pay attention to how culture works. According to Dr. Bridwell-Mitchell, what to look out for in your school culture includes: the fundamental beliefs and assumptions; values; expected behavioral norms; how people actually behave; and resulting artifacts and creations. A perceptive school leader observes all of this in the school culture and asks:
- What truths do I want those in my school to take for granted about the work they do?
- What do I want them to believe is right and wrong, good and bad in the work they do?
- How will I be able to see tangible evidence of beliefs, assumptions, values, norms and behavior in my school?
- A leader can powerfully shape a school’s culture. Dr. Bridwell-Mitchell offered strong examples of organizations whose leaders fundamentally drove the creation of their cultures, including Mary Kay and Enron. She then described six tools that can help a leader move existing beliefs and assumptions closer to his or her cultural vision. According to an enlightening homework exercise which she distributed, here are some questions which a leader can consider:
- What changes will you make in how you personally model and establish organizational culture at your school?
- If you were bringing on new employees, what criteria would you use to determine their fit with the culture you envision?
- What kind of training program could you institute to encourage norms and behaviors consistent with your envisioned culture?
- If you were to bring in new activities or artifacts to signal and reinforce your envisioned culture what would they be?
- If you crafted an opening day memo to articulate your cultural message to staff, what would it say?
- Who are the individuals/what are the relationships you would actively manage to spread the values, norms, and behaviors you envision?
The inspiring message of the power of leaders to shape their culture is one that the LEV participants will take back with them to their work this coming school year. Whether you are a leader or other member of your school’s community, we all can benefit from being more aware of our surrounding culture and how we are both responding to it and shaping it through our own behaviors.