A positive school culture makes work and school fun, supportive, and purposeful. But how do you get there? This principal shares his learning about building school culture that is strengths-based, collaborative, innovative and focused, and grounded on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity and care.
During my 20 years as an educator, I have been part of school staffs who could not talk, would not talk, and even should not talk to each other. I have also worked and learned alongside school staffs who have embraced a positive school culture – one that makes work and school fun, supportive, and purposeful. So how have some staffs created this positive culture while others struggle to get there? This is a question that I have focused on for the past five years as a school principal.
Culture is hard to see but we can always feel it; it is the vibe of a school – the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that exist within a school staff. In any organization, we continually strive to make positive change; however, as Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” so before we can tackle real change, we need to work as a staff to create a positive school culture. How do we do this?
At the previous school where I worked as principal, our staff focused on building a positive staff culture for four years. Our goal was to achieve this, not through isolated team-building activities, but in the way we actually did our work together as a staff of educators.
In one of our first staff meetings, I introduced a collaborative activity and it flopped miserably. When I attempted to encourage more focused conversation, one of our respected veteran teachers stated, “We don’t know how to do this.” I tried rephrasing the instructions for the activity but he interrupted and said, “No, we don’t really know how to talk like this.”
This was such a turning point in our staff meeting culture, as it was clear we needed to start from there and first build trust, safety, and support. We could not dive into the real work until we established a place where this deeper dialogue could occur.
We started with creating some norms or commitments for our staff meetings and collaborative time (Hat tip to Cale Birk for the idea). The staff came up with the list below:
1. The topics will be relevant to what we do (and what we want to do) at our school.
2. We will be flexible and willing to try new things and ideas.
3. We will share the successes happening at our school.
4. We will create strategies to provide equitable opportunities for each of us to share our voice (and not be dominated by a few).
5. We will acknowledge that a sense of humour is important and will embrace opportunities for light-hearted dialogue.
6. We will stay on topic and stick to the agenda.
7. We will have a clear timeline for implementation of ideas.
8. There will be a clear purpose to the discussion and agenda items.
9. We will encourage others for their ideas and ask others for clarification, comments, ideas and suggestions.
10. We will provide time for grade-level collaboration.
11. We will always make time for getting together and having small group discussions.
12. We will respect that some may prefer to listen and reflect.
This set of commitments guided our behaviours and helped create staff meetings that felt safe enough to have the “real” conversations that often only take place in the parking lots and staff rooms. Prior to a discussion that might have some opposing views, we always reviewed and reminded ourselves of these commitments.
We also discussed the attributes of an effective staff culture. Staff shared their experiences with positive and negative cultures. They then captured words to describe a positive culture and we put them into a Wordle (See Figure 1; thanks to Suzanne Hoffman for the idea).
Figure 1: Staff description of a positive culture
Through our work as a staff, as well as my learning at previous schools, I came up with what I believe are the Four Pillars of a Positive School Staff Culture. They are:
I am sure there are other attributes that could be used but these four have been most effective for the schools where I have worked. As you can see in Figure 2, these four pillars are also based on the core values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. These values weave their way through the pillars and without them, the pillars can crumble.
Figure 2: A Positive Organizational Culture
The four pillars
A STRENGTHS-BASED culture is one that believes that every staff member has strengths that can benefit the school as a whole. Feedback with staff always starts with strengths (character and skills), staff members are given the opportunity to determine their strengths (reflections and/or the VIA Strengths Survey1), and each staff member is encouraged to use these strengths in their important work with students. Research from the Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) in 20022 shared that one of the most effective ways to bring out the best in your employees is to start with strengths. Performance and engagement is significantly increased when feedback and evaluation focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. On staff surveys, many staff reported that with the focus on strengths, they felt more motivated, safer to be themselves, happier and healthier overall at school. A healthier, happier staff who feel safe and motivated can accomplish so much more with their students and for the school community.
“As leaders, we often make the mistake of listening to a problem and then jumping to solve it by ourselves.”
A COLLABORATIVE culture believes “the smartest person in the room is the room itself” (David Weinberger). Staff tap into each others’ strengths and engage in respectful, reflective dialogue to drive professional learning and create positive change. Trust is a huge part of a collaborative culture, and truly listening to others is essential to building trust. Polarizing statements and unwillingness to meet people where they are at will create a challenge to collaboration. By avoiding binary thinking, embracing the “grey areas” and listening to others’ perspectives, we grow as individuals and as a collaborative staff.
As leaders, we often make the mistake of listening to a problem and then jumping to solve it by ourselves. As a new principal, I had a teacher share a concern with me. Within minutes, I was busy shifting support schedules and trying to solve the problem. I bounced into her classroom to share what I had done, and she grew quite frustrated. She said, “I came to you so you could understand where I was at and so we could come up with solutions together. These solutions don’t really work for me and they will definitely negatively affect other teachers.” I was caught off guard by this feedback but so thankful, as I learned that my job is not to solve problems, but to work with staff to develop effective solutions together.
An INNOVATIVE culture is one in which educators feel safe to take risks, think critically and creatively, and implement new ideas with support. It moves from the question, “Can we….” to the question, “How can we…” The CLC’s research found that encouraging autonomy and risk-taking is another way to bring out the best in employees. An innovative culture is not necessarily always doing new things; it is one that understands the research around what is effective and is willing to try new ideas to help meet school goals. As Chip and Dan Heath tell us in their book Switch, we need to shrink the change. We need not always aspire for huge risks and changes, rather, we should encourage incremental changes that can be tried for a period of time to see if there is a positive impact. An important role for principals is to find the resources (time, materials, etc.) to support the innovative work of staff, so that good educators can become great educators.
A few years ago, inspired by Daniel Pink’s book Drive, I offered staff a “FedEx Prep,” which meant that I would provide an extra prep period for six weeks so a staff member could take an idea and put it into practice. The only caveat was that they had to “deliver” – sharing with staff the idea they had implemented and observing the results over the school year. We had teachers work individually and collaboratively to implement ideas in areas such as outdoor education (a school garden), technology (blogging with primaries to help with writing skills), and self-regulation (a teacher and a special education assistant redesigned their classroom and introduced tools to help students be in a more effective learning state). By providing a small amount of time and a few resources, we were able to encourage innovation at our school.
A FOCUSED culture is one that knows the key areas of growth that the school is working on, as well as the strategies that can have the largest impact. With so many ideas, policies, and procedures being sent our way, principals and school leaders need to be good filters and keep the staff focused on their vision and mission. There are many “shiny new” ideas out there that look and sound great but they may not help your school on its journey. One question we have used to focus is, “What problem are we trying to solve?” If the new idea is not helping us with the problems (or areas of growth) we are working on, we can set them aside until a later date. By having a laser-like focus on clear goals and clearly defined problems the staff is working on, you can filter and prioritize what’s most important for your school.
The four core values
Four important values guide our behaviours and our journey toward a positive school culture. To embody any of these well, we must slow down. In a fast-paced world, this is even more important!
TRUST: At the heart of trust is communication. It is so important for us all to talk less and listen more. In author Mark Goulston’s words, we need to spend more time being interested and less time trying to be interesting. As formal school leaders, we must also be as transparent as possible to make sure that people understand why decisions are made and/or have all the information they need to make decisions. Another important way to build trust is to walk the talk; if we say we will do something … do it.
Building trust takes time. When I first arrived at my previous school, I posted a sign-up schedule to meet with every staff member to learn more about them and how I could best support them. After a week, not a single staff member had signed up. When I followed up privately with a few people, it was shared that everyone assumed it was an interview and they were nervous to meet with me. This was far from the goal! But the staff didn’t trust me yet. I met with a few individuals informally and then shared that this was the type of conversation I hoped to have in the scheduled times. After that, others started to sign up and they soon realized it was a positive opportunity. Within a few months, I had met with the entire staff.
“We can still work incredibly hard to support students while also encouraging happiness with staff.”
HAPPINESS: I always knew happiness was important but until I moved to my current school at Shortreed Community Elementary, I had no idea the impact that a staff can have on each others’ happiness. By having a sense of humour, taking the time to slow down and be there for each other (in good times and bad), and by showing gratitude, we can create a much more positive school staff culture. Going to work each day where people are happy fuels others and makes the difficult work we do much more enjoyable.
Within my first week at Shortreed, I knew it was a place with a sense of humour. I had worked many hours planning my first assembly to welcome everyone back in September. I wanted to share a bit about me and a slideshow from the first week. Little did I know that the staff had their own plans. Our Youth Care Worker had asked each class to prank me by coming to the assembly and literally sitting wherever they wanted – anywhere and everywhere. As the students entered the gym, my face started to go red at the chaos. Then the whistle blew and all students, with huge grins, quietly moved to their appropriate spots. It was a reminder to not take ourselves so seriously, to have fun and create some happiness in the school. We can still work incredibly hard to support students while also encouraging happiness with staff.
CURIOSITY: We cannot grow as a school unless we are curious. By seeing challenges as opportunities that we can be curious about, we can then collaborate and work together to meet them. By being curious and ensuring we are asking the right questions, we continually grow as educators, learners, leaders, and people.
CARE: People need to feel like they belong and they matter. Small acts of caring can go a long way to building a positive culture and community of care. At my current school, our mantra is, “You BELONG here.” This drive to create a sense of belonging is not only for students but also for our families and staff. We need to lead with an ethic of care and model to our staff that we support and look out for one another.
As an educator, I have come to realize that building (and maintaining) a positive staff culture takes time. By slowing down, focusing on the four values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care while also keeping the four pillars of strengths-based, collaborative, innovative and focused cultures at the heart of what we do, we can help create a positive school staff culture.
I am thankful to have observed the incredible power of a positive culture. When we all work together to build and maintain this, we feel healthier at school and at home, more motivated and inspired in the important work we do, and because of this, we also see improved results in the achievement and success in our students.
Illustration: Diana Pham
First published in Education Canada, December 2019