Unifying School Culture

By Dr B K Guha CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the cornerstones of a strong school, in addition to a strong curriculum and a well-designed environment, is strong leadership. In fact, you could have all the other things, but if a school lacks leadership, then everything else will fall apart.

Leadership doesn’t have to hinge on one person—in fact, what you will most likely find in a strong school is a formal or informal structure of distributed leadership, in the form of teacher teams or representatives from different departments or grade levels.

A few of the tenets of a strong leader is the ability to self-reflect, listen actively to others, and instill a culture of professional trust and respect. You can see those traits on display in this interview of Francisco D’Souza by Adam Bryant of the NY Times.

D’Souza provides insight into how he attempts to address his own blind spots and comfort zones. But what I found most interesting here was his discussion of how he approaches his company culture. Notice that he explicitly references how to develop a culture based on distributed leadership.

“We’ve organized the company in a way to make sure that we continuously delegate and empower people on the front lines. As we got bigger, we would take larger units and break them down into smaller units and give individuals a sense of ownership, creating very clear success metrics around those individuals” (bold added.

Viewing this from within our frame of education reform, this is refreshing. We hear a lot about metrics, but unfortunately, such metrics are not implemented by states or districts with the explicit purpose of the empowerment of teachers. 

“But when you decentralize and empower, you have to make sure you don’t wind up with lots of microcultures, because every leader, every manager, puts his or her stamp on the culture. Culture gets passed along not by writing it down, but through the rituals you have in the organization, the legends you refer to, and the heroes of the organization. So we institutionalized a set of things to create rituals, heroes and legends” (bold added).

I found this point interesting. Schools always have sets of rituals, some common to all schools, such as graduation ceremonies, and others unique to a school, such as ice cream parties for academic completion or Math-a-thons. It’s interesting here to consider culture from a big system perspective, as D’Souza is viewing this through the lens of his entire company.
This leaves us with an interesting question to consider in relation to the creation of culture: how can schools and school districts promote distributed leadership, while at the same time avoiding the creation of wholly divergent microcultures?
    In a post on culture by Eric Barker on Barking Up the Wrong Tree, we can find some guidance to these questions:

    “Treat company culture like you would your family culture.”

    “Forming a culture is not an instant loop; it’s not something you can decide on, communicate, and then expect it to suddenly work on its own. You need to be sure that when you ask your children to do something, or tell your spouse you’re going to do something, you hold to that and follow through.”

    In other words, leaders in education need to practice what they preach, and consistently enforce the sort of culture that they hope to create. If we want a culture of teachers who are professionals and scholars, then we need to demonstrate professionalism and scholarship at the highest levels, and elevate those who demonstrate it, rather than elevate those who demonstrate mere ambition or an ability for salesmanship.

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