Notes from the Field: Changing School Culture| Zachary Roberts, Ed.D ’10
In The Principalship, Thomas Sergovanni defines culture as the beliefs and values that underlie and direct the actions of faculty. Ideas such as “all children can learn” and “the whole child should be educated” fall into this category of thought. The importance of cultivating a healthy school culture cannot be understated in school leadership. The ability to effect positive change in the program, operations, and political dimensions of school structures rests on having a strong, coherent culture that supports faculty in modeling the foundational values, and holds them accountable when they move away from those. This is why I identified improving the culture of the elementary division at The Berkeley School, where I am Associate Head of School and Elementary Division Head, as one of my foci for the current school year, and made it the topic of my project for my NAIS Fellowship for Aspiring Heads of School.
Because school culture rests on abstract ideas such as beliefs and values, changing it requires surfacing those values in ways that can then be directly applied to the curriculum, traditions, and other facets of school life. While I would have loved to set aside time for faculty to discuss their core values and beliefs about education in the abstract, to do so would take their most precious resource – time – without providing a pragmatic connection to their work, and my experience is that teachers prefer their time be spent talking about substantive matters, rather than process-related ones. My approach, therefore, has been to identify ways in which the values and beliefs in our culture can be named within the context of specific program-related work.
One way in which I have worked to shift school culture is through a year-long examination of our curriculum. One strand of this has been to begin a curriculum mapping process that gives teachers time to plan, reflect, and revise their own curriculum, as well as significant opportunities to work with faculty at other grade levels to understand the knowledge, skills and understandings that are being taught to students throughout the school. Another strand has been working closely with our Curriculum Coordinator to implement a design thinking process for examining our balanced literacy program. This initiative has involved defining the components of the program, training faculty on implementing a consistent word study program across the grades (since one was missing), providing regular opportunities to implement the Looking At Student Work Together protocol developed by David Allan and Tina Blythe at Harvard’s Project Zero Institute, and more.
My second approach has been to increase the role of teacher leadership in defining specific aspects of our program. I formed small working groups to examine our shared traditions, such as holiday celebrations and our curriculum sharing events, and I pushed those small groups to be explicit about the values behind our work. For example, one such group at the beginning of the year met to rethink our assemblies, which were previously bi-monthly sing-alongs of old folk songs. By starting with sharing the reasons we value assemblies, we were able to then move on to identifying the goals we wished the assemblies to meet, and thus come up with a structure that could achieve them. When this group of teachers suggested a structure to the event that involved students sharing their learning, and the reporting out of the work of our newly-formed student council, the faculty as a whole was excited to take on the added burden of preparing their kids to present, precisely because their peers had taken the time to ground the approach in their values.
I have used one other strategy to increase the coherence of our division’s culture, and that is to attempt to become a better cheerleader and recognize what is going right in our classrooms. I have found several avenues for this, including offering a sincere and authentic appreciation to a different faculty or staff member each day for some aspect of their work; being sure to notice, comment on, and inquire about the new displays and documentation that appears on the walls of the classrooms each time I enter a room; and to publish an internal division newsletter in which I pick one thing from each class, and write about how I see it connecting to our mission, learning outcomes, or pedagogic approach.
Peter Drucker, an influential scholar of management theory and practice, once wrote that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Understanding the history of a school site, the personal narratives of the faculty and staff, and the context, constraints, and conditions that a school faces are essential in effecting culture change. It is time-consuming work, and one that I find presents me with new and exciting challenges every day. I share my approach in the hope that it provides others with a foil to consider their own critical work in this area, and I welcome anyone who would like to have a dialogue on this topic at to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.