THOMAS R. HOERR, PH.D.
A school’s culture is the set of expectations, attitudes, and practices that define everyone’s behavior. Some of it can be described and defined; much of it is simply “there,” not necessarily in our consciousness but part of our environment.
Chances are that if you asked your staff to define your school’s culture, you would get a range of answers; indeed, you would probably hear statements such as “We care about kids” or “Religion and achievement frame our efforts.” While those comments might be apt (we hope so!), they don’t define culture. Perhaps they describe an aspect of it.
If, instead, you asked a series of specific questions that illuminate activities in your school – What causes teachers to be applauded? How are staff birthdays addressed? How are students’ learning challenges supported? Who is involved in hiring? What happens at staff meetings? – you would learn about its culture. The big issues, such as how we treat students’ learning issues, and the not-so-big issues, such as staff birthdays, come together to create formal and informal expectations. Together, these assumptions and expectations determine what members of the community perceive and how they act.
Components of Culture
A model of culture that I favor is presented by John Coleman in his article, “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture.” It points out the various factors that determine our perceptions and behaviors: Vision/Mission; Values; Practices; People; Narrative; and Place.
|Mission / Vision||“A great culture starts with a vision or mission statement. These simple turns of phrase guide a company’s values and provide it with purpose.”|
|Values||“A company’s values are the core of its culture. While a vision articulates a company’s purpose, values offer a set of guidelines on the behaviors and mindsets needed to achieve that vision.”|
|Practices||“Values are of little importance unless they are enshrined in a company’s practices.”|
|People||“No company can build a coherent culture without people who either share its core values or possess the willingness and ability to embrace those values.”|
|Narrative||“Any organization has a unique history — a unique story. And the ability to unearth that history and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture creation.”|
|Place||“Place shapes culture. Place — whether geography, architecture, or aesthetic design — impacts the values and behaviors of people in a workplace.”|
The first step in improving a school’s culture is to recognize its power, i.e., to be aware of how it influences perceptions and behavior. While we would expect that vision/mission and values have a powerful impact on our culture, we may underestimate the influence of narrative and place. The stories people tell, the traditions to which they adhere, and the posters and signs – including what student work is displayed – speak volumes about our culture. A walk from the main door to the front office tells much about culture.
Understanding Your School’s Culture
A simple exercise to understand your school’s culture would be to reproduce the preceding chart and add a third column, titled “Examples,” and identify two or three activities or understandings upon which everyone would agree for each of the six rows. But we often don’t know what we don’t know, so to shed light and increase dialogue, convene a focus group of staff members (no more than eight, some newer employees, some with more experience) and ask them to complete the same form, generating their own examples. Sharing the data as a committee could go a long way to starting a dialogue about culture. Before any discussion, I would frame the conversation by asking, “Does our school’s culture reflect what we want and believe?”
You may be surprised by what you hear or by what isn’t said. From my experiences in a range of settings – from being a public school principal to leading a private school, from running a program for new heads of independent schools to teaching prospective principals at a university – leaders of schools are almost always a bit caught off-guard by the responses of others. That’s because like it or not, no matter how hard we try, leaders are always a bit isolated. We always need to do a better job of listening.
As a result, when we are surprised by some of the sharing, we should view these data as both input and reinforcement, as opportunities to begin a dialogue and process about our how school can become even better. We need to begin by taking a few moments to celebrate where there is consensus; don’t overlook the successes! But then we need to figure out what causes any disagreements or why there is a lack of clarity and consensus. Do newer employees see things differently than those with more experience?
As you think about how to create a culture that supports your school’s mission and values employees (because, after all, without talented and caring employees, a school’s mission cannot be fulfilled), consider the comment of author and educational maven Ken Robinson: “The role of a creative leader is not to have all of the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.”
This means that a key part of building a school’s culture, whether reinforcing what is already there or creating it anew, is getting staff support. The strongest school culture is one in which teachers feel ownership. This may stem from them giving input into determining the mission; it could be that they have participated in planning how the mission will be brought to life; or both. It does mean that their input will have been solicited, welcomed, and valued. Giving input that is ignored is more frustrating than not being asked for input at all.
New City School: A Multiple Intelligences School
The private school that I led, the New City School in St. Louis, became a multiple intelligences school. We worked from Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI), first described in Frames of Mind, and valued all eight of students’ intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, naturalist, intrapersonal, and interpersonal. This meant that MI played a prominent role in determining pedagogical strategies, assessment techniques, professional development, and communications with parents.
For example, because we believed that the personal intelligences were most important, we changed the first page of our report card to address only the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences, knowing that this would frame teachers’ efforts and start the dialogue at every parent-teacher conference. We added an end-of-year Portfolio Night because progress in many of the intelligences is best captured by artifacts or photos. We understood that children often engage in non-scholastic MI activities out of school, so we initiated an extra parent-teacher conference very early in the school year, an “Intake Conference,” designed for parents to talk and teachers to listen. Each year faculty committees were convened to create new strategies for implementing MI, e.g., the Parent Communications Committee, the Assessment Committee, the Portfolio Committee, and the MI Committee. Teachers led the committees and were typically responsible for presenting at our faculty meetings and professional development half- or full-day sessions.
Faculty Engagement – A Unified Culture
Reading the preceding paragraphs will give you a good sense of our school’s culture. You’ll be able to infer how we viewed student progress and the strategies we used to work with students’ parents and help students achieve. What may not be as obvious, however, is the key to our success: the level of faculty engagement in the process.
You see, our quest for MI began with a faculty group, the Talent Committee, meeting in the spring and over the summer reading Frames of Mind, chapter by chapter. Each chapter was presented by a different team of two teachers, and we decided that it had to be taught through the intelligence that was being described. We learned about the musical intelligence through song and rhythm and we learned about the logical-mathematical intelligence though puzzles and games, for example. After many months of reading, discussing, and using our own MI, the Talent Committee concluded its work by recommending to the full faculty that we adopt MI. The consensus was so strong that we didn’t need a vote; teachers saw the excitement of their peers!
The lesson here is not about MI. Rather, it is that the process of establishing an MI culture began with getting a core group of teachers on board; from there, enthusiasm spread, and we learned together. Our work not only gave us more tools for teaching and viewing students – through all of their intelligences – it framed the school culture in a way that facilitated professional growth in a range of areas.
How might you use this sort of a process to work to gain consensus on some of the areas of your school’s culture that were highlighted from the activity with Coleman’s chart? On what topic might you initiate a voluntary faculty reading group? As you plan your strategy, think of concentric circles as your model for change: with what small group do you begin, and how do you expand? And begin by knowing that whatever specific vision you have in mind will change. Not only is that O.K., it’s the way that it should be. As leaders, we need to frame the debate and set the boundaries, knowing that others’ ideas will provide the body. The mark of a strong school culture is that we move forward together.
Coleman, J. (2013, May 6). Six components of a great corporate culture. Harvard Business Review.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Thomas R. Hoerr, PhD, retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He is currently a Scholar In Residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and teaches in the Educational Leadership program, preparing prospective principals. He also leads the ISACS New Heads Network, helping new leaders of independent schools. Hoerr has written five books – most recently, The Formative Five (2016). He is currently writing a successor book, tentatively titled SEL: School Culture and the Formative Five. Hoerr has written more than 140 articles, including “The Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership Magazine from 2004 to 2017.