Culture is complex. It perfectly resembles soil because everything grows from it. So how can schools evaluate the state of their culture effectively?
The deeply rooted complexities of culture provide the canvas for success in schools every day. When educators think of culture, they often think of staff morale and student discipline practices. But culture is the deep beliefs and actions of those across the entire school community. When considering all stakeholders, think of parents, students, staff, school board members and local government officials (including the alderman/mayor, police and fire chiefs). Finally, whatever your role – do not forget yourself. You are just as much a driver of school culture as anyone else.
Prior to administration work, as a teacher, I worked in multiple turnaround schools. One such school had invited me to be a lead in the turnaround process. Hiring, retaining current families enrolled, curriculum and program design – I was excited to be a part of the process! The one question I asked the principal before committing was the following: Will you be trying to retain the current families enrolled or recruiting new families…or both? This was an important question, as the neighborhood was divided and parts were already seeing the reflections of gentrification. I strongly believed that in turnaround – we (the school team) was there to serve the current community – not change who the community was. We had a great conversation and I was all in. By the start of the school year though, our student population told a very different story.
Contextual understanding matters. The lesson to be learned from my story is simple: culture is influential to every part of a school. Furthermore, every person involved with a school can deeply impact culture. Why did the school’s entire population seemingly change within one school year? Unless we had done an in-depth evaluation of culture, it is hard to pinpoint just one reason. Now, it would be easy to try to place blame, point a finger so to speak, but it really would not be an accurate or precise measurement.
Because culture is complex, it can be challenging to evaluate school culture. I would suggest starting with the following components:
- People: Schools cannot progress without the right educators, board members and community buy-in to reach every student.
- Personal Growth: Too often, educators are focused on external results and transformation. In order to impact the external, educators must experience internal transformation.
- Professional Growth: Professional learning for educators (superintendents, principals, teachers, coaches, etc.) must be ongoing with measurable outcomes and structures for accountability.
- Programs: Programs that are innovative, rigorous, differentiated and offer deep learning for all are essential to moving our educational system forward. These programs can only be implemented at the highest levels when educators have realized their potential as a person and grown personally and professionally.
Each of these indicators builds on the other; but it begins with the selection, growth and development of people. People drive culture. Creativity and collaboration comes from…people. In order to achieve optimal student results, we must be willing to invest in our educators. My company has a needs assessment tool that measures these very indicators. It is imperative that anyone working in schools evaluates their own beliefs about these four indicators and sees what the entire organization believes as well. For our beliefs become our actions. Our actions become our habits. And our habits become our character (as the old adage goes).
By examining multiple actions within each indicator, there is a starting point which can trigger the following process from information to action to results:
- Diagnosis of current culture.
- What is working and what needs work?
- Prescription for improvement.
- What will be the customized learning and support aligned to desired outcomes?
- Progress monitoring and growth analysis.
- How are we progressing in each area and after implementing specific supports aligned to action, how did we improve?
That is what culture is all about: positive shifts and growth. Amidst change, how does the school continue to grow in practice and belief and ensure that, ultimately, every student is successful? It makes sense: We all have to understand what we are reading on the page before we can “get on the same page.” Healthy school cultures seek to find commonalities and ways to function as one heartbeat for the greater good of the school.
Where do you need to begin today?
Justine González is a former elementary and high school turnaround administrator and teacher. She is the Founder and President of Educator Aide, a company specializing in school transformation through cultural mastery. Educator Aide is an exclusive partner company to The 6 Stages Group.