Gaze Into the Mirror OR Awaken the Beast: School Culture or Bust

comic book cover

Courtesy of 8th grader Mia M – @hallmiddle

When is the last time a conversation about your school’s culture was on a meeting agenda? If you are struggling to remember, then I would argue that too much time has passed, too much water flowing (raging) under the bridge. If you are a school leader, facilitating these conversations can feel risky – when we hold up the mirror we’re not always happy with what we see. It is inevitable that by talking about school culture there will be some staff members that feel blamed (“What’s the problem? What did we do wrong?”); even more may feel that the culture chat is all fluff and no product. It’s not getting the papers graded and it’s not a new tool to take back to the classroom tomorrow.

The longer the interval between conversations like these, the more uncomfortable they will feel – and the more confusing. “Why are we talking about this?” is a legitimate question if it feels like “the talk” comes out of the blue. By kicking the culture can down the road, school leaders ensure that any discussion of school culture will turn into the Unknown Monster – a seemingly innocent guy who, for reasons beyond his initial comprehension or control, turns into a Sultan of Smash, terrifying all in his path, leaving nothing but wreckage and rubble in his wake.

It seems like so many school leaders never touch this conversation so as to not awaken the silent monster. Better to leave all that scariness (way) beneath the surface and hope that Citizen Joe doesn’t ever get too upset.

Fortunately there are a plethora of school leaders who feel differently about this. As Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert assert in their new book School Culture Rewired: “Culture is not a problem that needs to be solved, but rather a framework that a group can use to solve problems” (p. 6).  By avoiding the culture talk, we fail to tap into our greatest source of strength, creativity and mutual commitment.

I believe there is nothing more productive to discuss than the fabric of behaviors, values, and unwritten rules that govern how we operate every day at our schools. Ignoring it guarantees that the beast will emerge – something far scarier than dissonance at a staff meeting. After all, public dissonance – instead of private complaining – can be the surest sign of a healthy and robust culture.


My posts on culture:

I am fortunate to be connected to an incredible group of school leaders through Voxer. Here are resources from the group we affectionately call #LeadWild:

Curt Rees – #IPDx15 presentation on school culture.

Brad Gustafson“If you work in a school…you matter”

Jon Corippo“Build a culture or roll the dice”

Kenneth Durham “Climate and Culture: What I wish I would have learned long ago” and another great post on how to empower others.

(PS: If you want to infuse some muscle into your school’s culture of sharing and learning from each other, get your staff in a Voxer group for anywhere/anytime PD – all for the cost of a whopping $29.99 a year)

Here are other posts and resources that I find to be both relevant and moving. Please share with me more resources to list here.

Michael Niehoff“High schools need true community and happy students”

Dennis Sparks“Why schools are in trouble when the most honest conversations happen in the parking lot”

David CulberhouseThe Cost of Creativity. Yes, this is a post on creativity – and how receptive others in our organizations are to it. So I would argue it is a critical part of our culture conversation.

David Theriault“Why every school, class and learning space needs a couch”

How Transparency Can Transform School Culture: a terrific post featuring two school leaders embracing a paradigm shift in parent/community inclusion and engagement – Joe Mazza and Jeff Zoul.

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