Trickle Down Theory of Edu-Culture: Reflecting on ANOTHER #CAEdchat Thought-Nami


School culture is a living thing and is in constant flux – always shifting and pulsing, despite the seemingly placid surface, or efforts to “keep things as they are.”  It moves in waves – and waves are different depending on where we are in relation to shore (the tsunami passes underneath us if we are a ways out to sea – not so for the beach-goer).  If we’re attentive to the conditions around us, and have adequate preparation (training, equipment), we get to enjoy a wonderful ride.  But if we turn our back to the ocean, even the smallest wave can be dangerous.

The wonderful team that brings us #CAedchat asked a while back for ideas for the Sunday (8-9 pm PST) chat.  I contributed the following idea, and Jo-Ann Fox graciously asked me to be a co-moderator for the evening of July 27:

School staffs can be like family – for better AND for worse. How do we maintain vitality, freshness and a flow of new ideas in our work together through the years (decades)? What behaviors do we adopt to avoid the echo chamber of “This is how things are done around here?” What are we going to do about it in 2014/15? 

What happens when we work in a place for years – decades?  Yeah…do you think some skeletons might gather in the closets?  Schools exist to educate kids, and a school’s staff is just as integral to a school’s landscape as any building.  In fact, there are faculty members that outlast some buildings.  Each school has its own unique history, a story unlike any other school – and a staff culture that is equally idiosyncratic and unique to its setting.  The ocean touches shore differently at every beach.

But the “now” is always a product of lots of “before now” – every staff member, every student, every parent that is or was a part of the school community made their mark in some way.  We may not remember how a particular aspect of the school came to be, but we do know that it came about via the human dynamic – it didn’t land from outer space.  When we start to hear “This is how things work around here” or “The way things used to be” we know we have a problem – a particular storyline that may be deeply rooted in some people but not others.  Everyone on staff may very well be equally committed to their work – but if that commitment is misaligned across the organization, then we will be challenged to experience “organizational integrity” (Kegan).

One KEY point to make: the question of building a sustainable, vital culture of ongoing growth, camaraderie, shared purpose, and FUN is not about administrators dedicating more time to policing bad behavior – it’s about every faculty member committing themselves to building relationships across the school, practicing respectful, compassionate dialogue and disagreement, and celebrating each other and the students in the spirit of “ongoing regard” (Kegan).

As a former teacher and current administrator, I believe this will be tough for both teachers and administrators: teachers will need to speak up when they see and experience behaviors that are problematic (or behaviors/choices that need more explanation – assuming positive intent) and admin will need to step back and let difficult issues, conversations, and feelings surface – then make sure they provide the time for staff to really process them.  Strong culture is not about unanimity of thought (no possibility of innovation in environments where everyone thinks alike) – it’s about mutual commitment to each other and to students.  When we know we are going to disagree – and do so with trust and respect – we can walk into the collective space less defensive, less inclined to defend our turf with hair-trigger ferocity.

Whether you’re a staff of 10, or 110, the same complex dynamics apply.

Here were our questions; if you are interested in being deliberate and transparent about the culture conversation at your school, consider using these as a framework for your opening day staff development meeting as a touchstone for the rest of the year (and beyond).

1) How does your staff dedicate and structure sufficient time to celebrate and struggle together? Share examples.

2) What types of behaviors/mindsets help to support a fresh and creative work environment?

3) What behaviors get in the way of fresh ideas (& new working partnerships) taking shape?

4) What conditions allow us to share concerns, address the 800-lb gorillas in the room, & not bury tensions for years and years?

5) How do you build the capacity of staff to make commitments to each other across differences?

6) How does a vibrant, collaborative adult culture support a thriving student culture of learning/growing/sharing?

7) What can YOU do in 2014-15 to sustain a culture of creativity, growth, and vitality at your school site?

Disclaimer!  This is by NO means an exhaustive summary of the chat, I’m just picking a few key threads and collecting in one place some terrific resources shared during the chat.  This post is a windmill trying to capture the energy in a hurricane – NOT going to happen, maybe even at risk of being uprooted and tossed over into the neighboring county.

Break bread together (and try to break bread with more than just your normal “crew”).  Like, for REAL – real meals, real time sitting down and enjoying.  Not just the cookies and Snickers bars as you walk into your next staff meeting.

Celebrate each other (be each other’s Hype Man!) – and celebrate the kids.

This last thought makes me think about being a parent, and being a teacher – setting the conditions for a human being in our charge to develop.  

Practice respectful disagreement – “Polite Pushback” (the more we practice, the easier it gets).  Oh, and extend this invitation to our students as well – after all, isn’t this one of the essential life skills we want them to develop?

Create agreements together and live by them.

Create spaces (small, large) that give permission for people to speak up and take risks.

Often our first communication about something may come in the form of a question or complaint.  As Robert Kegan (third time’s a charm) says: “Behind every complaint lies a commitment.”  Let the complaint be an opening to more dialogue, and the beginning of a collaborative exercise in finding a solution.  I prefer someone who complains over the person that is beyond caring.  “Everything nice and polite” on the surface means that the complaints are surfacing elsewhere – the hallway, the water cooler (have to include that archetype), the parking lot.  Dr. Anthony Muhammad talks about bringing those kinds of conversations to the formal spaces where they can’t hide out and fester.

Make Instructional Rounds (& teacher-led PD) the Pillar of Open, Ongoing Learning & Collaboration

“Teams” must be inclusive and fluid.  We all know teams that have worked together for years (or decades).  It’s safe to say they have a highly functional dynamic – but what about outside of their team?  One additional question I would have for any school would be to consider the challenges presented by having certain people belong to a particular team for a long period of time.

Make Time for FUN (or a run…?)

The Trickle Down Theory of Edu-Culture.  

Oh, and it was also just a wee bit cool to see what was HOT on Twitter Sunday night.

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