Is Changing Culture Really the Answer?

I’ve written a lot about building culture and community recently.  Through some of the conversations I’ve had and articles that have been shared with me, I’m starting to wonder if “culture” itself is what needs fixing, or is there something larger?

My philosophy about developing a successful school environment has, for a long time, been based around the idea that “culture” is the most important ingredient and that focusing on building a positive culture will pay huge dividends.  In fact, my theory was reinforced at my past school when we focused hard on improving the culture of the school with very positive results.  It all made so much sense to me, build a strong culture with happy and engaged teachers, students, parents, and community members and everything will be better.  I guess when I simplify it that much it seems a bit silly to think that “culture” is the be all, end all.  

Reading an article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) called Culture is Not the Culprit I’ve been forced to question my philosophy on “culture” as the main ingredient for success.  Despite the title of this article, the authors (Jay Loersch and Emily McTague) don’t write off culture as a non-issue but rather show how culture is a PIECE of the puzzle.  I think that I agree with the title of this article if it is read with the right emphasis.  For example, if you read it, “CULTURE is not the culprit”, then I don’t agree.  However, if read, “culture is not THE culprit” then I think we’re getting closer to what I’m starting to believe.  What I’m coming to understand is that “culture” itself is not “THE” culprit, in that it’s not the ONLY thing that needs to be addressed.  Rather there is much more to this puzzle than I had previously been examining.  

The authors of the HBR article are out to shock people with their title, for good reason.  They argue that too many major corporations blame “the culture” and try so hard to fix “culture” that they aren’t looking at the other important pieces necessary for improving/growing a company.  This hit home with me, hard.  I have been so focused on the idea of “culture” lately that I’ve essentially isolated it as THE area for improvement.  The reality is that it is only a part (I will still argue that it’s a big part) of what we need to focus on in order to improve as a school community.  

I mentioned my past experiences earlier and I want to share more about how we improved the school overall while focusing on culture.  See, the trick is, that while I’ve been focusing on culture so much I’ve almost forgotten all the other important things we were doing to improve the educational experience for our students.  The HBR article’s main point is that instead of focusing on culture, companies should focus on improving their business structure and how they can be better at what they do.  THEN, as companies improve and become more successful the culture will follow along with it and improve naturally.  In previous schools I’ve seen so much focus on culture that I think that is what gets all the credit for improvement.  However, if the authors of this article were to look at that situation from the outside they would suggest that it wasn’t the focus on improving culture but rather the focus on improving the educational experience that really affected change.  Which makes me ask myself a lot of questions and completely reconsider whether we should be spending time on building culture at all!

When I read articles from a source like the Harvard Business Review I have to remind myself that while schools can often times feel and operate like a business, our “client” base is very different from that of the traditional business.  This means that we need to focus our “product” in a very different way from what a traditional business might do.  So while culture might be something that can come along naturally as the business model improves and customer satisfaction grows, as a school we need to look at it differently.  In order to increase “customer” satisfaction as a school we need to not only focus on culture but we also need to remain focused on improving as educators.  If our “service” is education, then we need to continuously look at our practices as educators and find ways to improve.  

Apple is on version 9.3.2 of iOS, the original version was released June 29, 2007, almost nine years ago.  That means they have upgraded to a new version (on average) once every year.  What about education, when was the last time education upgraded to a new version?  When was the last time your teaching practice upgraded versions?  We’re all experienced educators and we’ve all attended numerous conferences, read books, taken masters classes, and done countless other things to help ourselves grow as educators.  I know that every one of us has improved, but by how much?  In “software versioning” each number means something different.  As I understand it (based on this wikipedia article) the “9” is the “major number” and means that a significant improvement has been made, something like changing the framework.  Continuing with this example, the “3” is a “minor number” implying minor modifications or features added, and lastly the “2” is a “revision number” meaning small bug fixes have been made.  When I think about education as a whole and try to use this system I wonder where we’ve made real change as a profession.  Are we still on version 2.0, maybe 3.0?  We’re most certainly not updating our entire framework every year like iOS, nor do I think we should be.  However, when you think about your educational practice I’d like to ask you to think about what kind of upgrades you’ve made during your career.  Have they been “major”, “minor”, or “revision”?  

Next year we are working to make big changes to the culture at AC.  I’m not sure if I would go so far as to say that we’re changing the entire framework but I think we’re going to be close.  Adding a House System while improving the handbook, assessment manual, and reporting practices along with establishing clear and effective communication tools, are all changes we’re excited about for next year.  Together I think these improvements will go a long way toward helping us reach our goal of improving culture.  However, when I look at these things individually I realize that they’re not all “culture” pieces by themselves.  It’s not until taken together that they become a huge shift in “culture” at AC.  

Culture isn’t the ONLY thing that needs to change, nor is it the magic pill that will automatically improve everything within a school.  Culture is a (big) piece of the overall puzzle.  It is something that we need to build around and use as the focal point of our growth.  Working to  improve our educational practices, while building a positive and caring culture, will lead to rapid growth both in our teachers and, most important, in our students!

Pushing Forward with School Culture

Last week I wrote about school culture and how it is, perhaps, the single most important piece to achieving the academic success that we strive for in education.  I’ve continued thinking about the importance of shaping a school’s culture and have had a lot of conversations and feedback based on last week’s post (thank you to everyone for your thoughts!)  As a result of all these conversations I decided to start trying (and modeling) a few strategies that I thought could be beneficial to further engage our student and parent populations.  I’ve found a high level of success at the initial level and I’m excited about some of the feedback I’ve received from parents and students alike.

In the past I’ve written about the importance of feedback and how giving and receiving feedback are things that people need to practice.  Similarly, I read Thanks For the Feedback a while back, upon Dan’s recommendation, and have been thinking a lot about the concept of learning to receive feedback.  There are a lot of factors at play when receiving feedback, which is what we’re asking our students and parents to do as part of the process of further engaging with academics.  One of the most impactful ideas is that people need to be in the right mindset when receiving feedback, otherwise it may fall on deaf ears and be ignored.  

One challenge that exists when sharing feedback with students and parents is that all too often we only make time to share the “negative” feedback, the stuff intended to help our students improve and grow.  This is essential information and must be shared with students and parents, but it’s not the only piece.  Balance is an important part of life, in all aspects, and when it comes to feedback there is no difference.  In order to reach a level of balance in student/parent communication that will act to further engage these stakeholders we have to ensure that we aren’t solely focused on the “negative.”  If we only contact parents about “negative” issues or approach students with “negative” feedback they will begin to block us out and our feedback will be completely lost.  

Which brings me to my idea, one of a few I’ve been trying out lately…and seeing incredible results!  Positive messages home.  I’m not making things up just to have an excuse to contact parents and celebrate their kids.  Rather, I’m looking for the positive and taking the time to share the celebration with students and parents.  Meanwhile, I continue to make my usual parent contacts for less desirable reasons (detentions, missing work, etc.)  What I’ve noticed is that when I copy (CC) parents on these messages to the students (I always do this), I’m receiving a response from the parents 85% of the time when I share a positive message, compared to an approximate 20% response rate for “negative” messages.  One of my (many) theories is that as we engage more parents with positive messages that our response rate on “negative” messages will increase.  It’s only natural, that as parents begin to see that we’re in this together, that they’ll begin to engage further with their students academic pursuits.  When I have kids come up and thank me for sharing a positive message with their parents I know that they’ve had a conversation around this topic.  My hope is that we can find a way to help parents open the lines of communication by starting with the positive, then when the “negative” arises they’ve already established a path for having these conversations.

It takes a village to raise a child and we’re all in this together.  After a few conversations around this topic, some teachers have already jumped on the bandwagon and have begun to share more frequent (both positive and “negative”) messages home, with wonderful results.  If you’re keen to help continue this surge toward a more positive school culture I encourage you to give this a try.  Let me know if you’re thinking about it and I can give you some time-saving tips to help prevent spinning your wheels unnecessarily.  There’s no better time than the present to celebrate the wonderful students we are fortunate enough to work with every day, you never know when that one positive note home is going to change something for a student or parent!  

Starting with Culture

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the culture of our school.  Having been in four previous schools in various places around the world I’ve been a member of a variety of different school communities.  Some have been naturally very positive and others have required a lot of time and effort in order to reach a comfortable level.  However, the one thing that holds true in all of these schools is the importance of creating a community centered around the school.  I believe that means that every stakeholder must be appropriately involved in the educational process, we can’t reach a point where we are ever comfortable with leaving any particular group of people out of the learning community.

Throughout this first year at AC I’ve watched, listened, and felt the pain of teachers as we’ve banged our head against the wall trying to engage students and parents in the learning process.  We have a lot of amazing students and families here at AC.  However, there are also a large number of students and families who are disengaged and, at times, completely oblivious to the reality of the expectations for learning.  I don’t mean to make a sweeping generalization, as that wouldn’t be fair to all of those students and families who are integral parts of our community.  I know that we, as educators, haven’t given up on a single one of these students or families and we work extremely hard to engage them.  What I’m worried about right now is the possibility that we’ve given up on some of the parents, maybe even written them off as completely disengaged.

There is a lot of evidence to support the theory that students whose parents are more involved in the school community do better academically.  This is powerful stuff, especially when you look at our attendance at parent nights or PTO meetings.  Where are all of our students’ parents?  As I’ve settled in at AC I’ve had the chance to sit back, observe, and ponder questions such as that.  There is one thing that keeps boiling to the top as I contemplate our community; I’m concerned that we haven’t done enough of the “right” things to engage our parents.  There is no doubt in my mind that we’ve tried a lot of strategies to engage our AC families but what I think has become obvious is that we’ve yet to find the “right” or most successful strategies.  

Not to be lost in this conversation are the kids, what impact has this had on their learning?  Well, as I mentioned above, there is a lot of research to support the theory that students whose parents are involved in the school community achieve more academically.  That is very important to consider as we ponder, as a school, how to best help our students grow as learners.  So, let’s think about that for a second…which of your students struggle the most to engage with the learning process here at AC?  How involved are their parents?  Next, and what I want you to consider as the most important question, what have you done to further engage those parents in their student’s learning?  Have those strategies worked?

We need to come together over a common understanding of what it means to engage our full community.  As I said earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this lately and I’ve also had a number of conversations with different teachers, parents, and students.  Let’s work as a team to bring this entire community together around one common theme, student learning!  I’d love to hear your thoughts, concerns, and strategies to further engage the different parts of our AC community…please share!

Positive School Culture: The Importance of School Spirit

There is an exciting week ahead at AC!  Saturday is the PTO Family Fun Run and all of next week is a school-wide Spirit Week sponsored by the High School Student Council.  Personally, I couldn’t be more excited to dig through my closet and come up with some spirit-wear for the week…it’s going to be awesome!!  

School spirit doesn’t depend solely on a positive school culture but these two things are most certainly correlated.  We’ve worked hard at Academia Cotopaxi to build a positive school culture.  Whether thinking about the collegial atmosphere in the staff room or the positive student relationships, AC has a great vibe and is a positive place to learn and work.  We’ve introduced the “I See AC” uniform policy this year, in part to increase the sense of school spirit among our students.  I’d love to see the ‘battle’ over uniform become a thing of the past, with our students so proud of their school that a uniform is a badge of honor instead of a nuisance!

This weekend we have the PTO Fun Run happening.  Our parents have worked very hard to create a wonderful community event that will bring together students and families for a wonderful morning of exercise and community building.  The beautiful t-shirts designed by one of our very own high school students have sold out!  The amount of people clamoring to get their hands on these shirts is inspiring, the sense of spirit behind the Fun Run is exactly the kind of feeling we want to be generating here at AC!

All of next week, for what I think is the first time in a very long time, we will have a school-wide Spirit Week.  This event was put together by our High School Student Council.  Their vision was an event that brought the whole community together to celebrate our amazing school.  Each day has been well thought out, with all age levels considered.  The grade level that shows the most spirit throughout the week will even be rewarded with an ice cream party in the future…yum!

The importance of school spirit on the learning environment has been well documented but it’s important role is frequently over-looked.  In fact, some of the people who believe most strongly in the power of school spirit are the students themselves!  An interesting paradox often arises amongst our teenagers as they struggle between ‘fitting-in’, ‘being cool’, and ‘standing out’.  As some of the most important adults in their life, one of the best things we can do is model the behavior we would like to see from them.  To that end, we need to demonstrate school spirit for our students and continue to build the positive atmosphere that will lead to, not only a happier school, but also a more productive learning environment.

So, come on out to the PTO Fun Run and show your spirit.  Join the run (even if you missed the early sign up, you can still run!)  It begins at 8:30 with registration starting at 8:00.  If running isn’t your thing, then be sure to join for the free breakfast beginning at 9:30.  It’s a great way to get your Saturday started and a fantastic way to support our PTO’s efforts to brighten our community!  Finally, start rummaging through your closets and planning your outfits for next week…let’s be the best dressed ‘class’ out there next week 🙂

Monday:  Pajama Day

Tuesday:  Nationality Day

Wednesday:  Fandom Day (Who are you a fan of?  Sports teams, People you admire (Einstein), etc.)

Thursday:  Wacky Day (Crazy hair, clashing clothes, backwards clothes, etc.)

Friday:  Costume Day (Book characters are best, please nothing too scary!)

Building Positive Student-Teacher Relationships

This week we finally got to one of my favorite initiatives at SCIS, our SIPs program.  The opportunity to work with colleagues and grow as educators is an energizing and inspiring experience for me.  Our SIPs plan this year has been designed to focus on our six major “look fors” as well as help to integrate technology into our classrooms.  This past Wednesday I was fortunate enough to present with three of our brave colleagues.  I presented my SIP on Building and Fostering Positive Student-Teacher Relationships.  For those of you who were in the Google Sketchup session with Ross I’d like to share the general premise of what was happening across the hall…

As educators we are responsible for our students for more than 7 hours a day, five days a week.  We are the adults that have the most regular contact with these students, in almost every case they spend more time with us than with their parents.  They come to us during one of the most tumultuous periods of their lives and want nothing more than to be believed in, trusted, and cared about.  Middle School students want to fit in and they want to feel that they are important.  Last week when I visited classes as a student I was on the watch for “feeling like a nuisance” but I couldn’t find it…we already have a very good positive culture here at SCIS.  I, however, am a big Jim Collins fan and want to see us take our school “from good to great”.

I’ve been informed by a certain High School math teacher that my two cents “have turned into more like 8 cents” so I’m going to leave it at that for today but, as promised in my SIP, I am attaching a number of great links about building and fostering positive student-teacher relationships and classroom culture: