Monday, August 24, 2009

School Culture and Change

A school’s culture can make or break school reform. In a school where the culture is such that teachers are consistently focused on student learning and achievement, the introduction of a reform effort will more than likely be embraced by staff with open arms. These positive teachers will not interpret the initiative as a judgment on their performance as teachers or on their progress as a school, but rather, they will eagerly rise to the occasion and enthusiastically jump on board to do their part in making the necessary adjustments for the sake of the students they serve. Conversely, in a school that is infected with a negative school culture, the journey to reform will most likely be an uphill battle. The teachers’ skepticism and distrust of the administration will block staff buy-in and allow for very little acceptance of or immersion in the implementation of the reform. In this case, the school leader would be better off focusing energy and resources at changing the school culture as a prerequisite to adopting a reform model.

How can an effective leader turn the tide on a negative school culture? First and foremost, the leader must be positive himself. He has to be committed to the school’s vision and firmly believe that change is possible. He has to take the time to listen to his staff members, ALL of them, in order to diagnose the root of the unrest and unhappiness. He has to find a way to put the progress of students above all else, and to get the staff members to look outside of themselves and to embrace what education is all about. He would do well to find the strong, positive change agents among his staff who could commit to the task of overturning the negativity; one example might be the formation of a Good Cheer Committee. It might be worthwhile to host a retreat or an off-campus event where teachers could leave their “discomfort zone” of school and see each other and their administrator in a new light. Perhaps in the listening, whether one-on-one or informally at an off-campus, after-hours event, he will be able to determine what issues are affecting morale and performance and to devise a strategy for extracting the negative element or resolving the issue at hand. The fact that he takes the time to listen and doesn’t back down from the discomfort may provide a turning point for the negative parties to realize that here is a leader who is genuinely interested in them and the work that they do and that they can begin to make the attitude adjustments necessary to be about the work of teaching kids and helping them to achieve and excel.

One of the things that I have learned so far in the JHUISTE course on “Effective Leadership” is that change will be a constant. From year to year, and sometimes even in smaller increments throughout a school year, as a leader I will have to be willing to take the time and to do the collaborative work necessary to craft a vision and a mission. I will have to maintain the pulse of my school’s progress to know if and when a reform or innovation is necessary to ensure we are meeting our desired outcomes. When that time comes, I will have to be sensitive to the readiness of my staff to implement the change so that it is most effective. It won’t be enough to work really hard to get it all right one year, and then to sit back and glide through the next year or two. Every year is different. Staffs change, student populations change, district policies change, school culture can change. With all this potential change, I will need to remain vigilant and alert and ready to step in or step up, all the while being open to the input, feedback and ideas of all stakeholders. It’s a job that’s never really finished.

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