Sharing ideas on Education, Leadership and Life

Monday, March 10, 2014

Creating a Culture

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the iJed conference in New York with over 300 other Jewish educators from around the world.  The experience was amazing and perhaps on a personal level for me the high point was seeing and hearing Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in person. Rabbi Sacks is a personal hero and someone who I have quoted many times in the past and to see and hear in person was a true thrill.
On a professional level the one big takeaway for me was the importance of creating a proper school culture. School culture is more than “As mentioned previously, the notion of school culture is a bit more complex than pom-poms and color war chants.” (Source SCHOOL CULTURE: A REVIEW OF THE RESEARCH & LITERATURE) School culture is pervasive and covers all areas of leadership for student learning and achievement and even our approach to how we educate and treat all students (including those with diverse needs)

The report mentioned above states the following: “Contemporary research continues to point to the impact of school culture on a variety of important outcomes. In a major meta-analysis of research on leadership and student achievement, Waters and associates (2004) discovered a strong correlation between aspects of school culture and how well students performed. Student achievement was related to a shared set of core beliefs, a focused and clear sense of purpose, recognition of staff and student accomplishments, intellectual engagement, and celebrations of success. Although structures fostered connection, discussion of purpose, and school improvement, it was clear that these were deeply embedded in the culture of values, stories, ceremonies, and celebrations (Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2004).

This idea to me was the true takeaway from the conference. We can’t talk about our view on diverse learners, how we are going to incorporate technology and other important tools and the issue of affordability and sustainability without talking School culture. What our beliefs are going to shape the type of school, we have and what outcomes we want for our students.

What I am saying is not new nor is it my own. The report on School Culture and Literature in July 2013 stated:  
Culture affects all aspects of a school.
It influences informal conversations in the faculty lunch room, the type of instruction valued, how professional development is viewed, and the shared commitment to assuring all students learn.

1) Culture fosters school effectiveness and productivity
Teachers succeed in a culture focused on productivity (rather than on maintenance or ease of work), performance (hard work, dedication, and perseverance), and improvement (continuous fine-tuning and refinement of teaching). Such a culture helps teachers overcome the uncertainty of their work (Lortie, 1975) by providing focus and collegiality. It provides motivation to persevere in the demanding work of teaching thirty students in a small, usually isolated, space. It encourages, sanctions, and rewards professionals in the constant task of improving their craft. (Purkey & Smith, 1983; Levine & Lezotte, 1990; Newmann & Associates, 1996; Leithwood & Louis, 1998).

2) Culture improves collegiality, collaboration, communication, and problem-solving practices
Schools that value collegiality and collaboration offer a better opportunity for the social and professional exchange of ideas, the enhancement and spread of effective practices, and widespread professional problem solving. (Little, 1982; Peterson & Brietzke, 1994; Kruse & Louis, 1997; DuFour, 2007).

3) Culture promotes innovation and school improvement
Toxic cultures that harbor mediocrity, inertia, and apathy are unlikely to be innovative. In contrast, schools that encourage change and risk taking foster people who seek innovative practices and experiment with new approaches. In positive cultures, staff plan and implement new practices. (Little, 1982; Louis & Miles, 1990; Deal & Peterson, 1990; Kruse & Louis, 1997; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2004).

4) Culture builds commitment and kindles motivation
People are motivated and feel committed to an enterprise that has meaning, values, and an ennobling purpose. Motivation is strengthened through rituals that nurture identification, traditions that intensify connection to the school, ceremonies that build community, and stories that convey the heart and soul of the enterprise.   (Schein, 1985, 2004).

5) Culture amplifies the energy and vitality of school staff, students, and community.
It has long been known that social climate and culture influence the emotional and psychological orientation of a school. Many say that the context is infectious. This is especially the case in schools that are optimistic, caring, supportive, and energetic. Staff, students, and community are likely to take on those same characteristics. But the opposite is also true. Some school cultures are toxic. The social milieu is so negative that even the positive individual can become discouraged or disheartened.

6) Culture focuses attention on what is important and valued
Rules, job descriptions, and policies can influence what a person does. Yet unwritten rules, informal expectations, and rites and rituals may be even more meaningful precursors of positive action and sustained progress. Unstated, often hidden, assumptions and expectations are embedded in cultural patterns and become more intensified over time. With meaningful values, daily work is centered on important issues of quality instruction, continuous refinement of teaching, and accelerated learning. (Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Schein, 1985, 2004).

If however I had to rank the different culture or for argument's sake tell you which one I find the most important it would a culture of learning.
A culture of learning affects the following areas:
·         It creates a transparent culture amongst teachers in that teachers are willing to learn and grow.
·         It creates a feeling of learning-reflect-share
·         Creates lifelong learners amongst the faculty which in turn creates this culture for our students
·         Only when the adults and teachers are learners can we expect our students to be learners
·         One must be open to change and willing to grow, which is created when people are constantly learning and willing to explore new ideas
·         Fosters a growth mindset
·         With all the above creates an environment where all children can grow and succeed

At times culture is something that we talk about or that is something for the school leadership to address and doesn’t affect me. Hopefully I have made the case that school culture is not something that can be ignored and at least in terms of a Culture of learning it is something that all of us need to be working on.

I want to thank the organizers of iJed for putting together a wonderful learning experience.