Kent Peterson was one of the first educational thought leaders I knew to recognize the power of school culture in shaping teaching and learning, an influence he explored with co-author Terrence Deal in Shaping School Culture.
So I was particularly eager to see how he would respond to the questions I put to him.
Kent is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spoken to school leaders across the U.S. and internationally about shaping positive and transforming toxic school cultures.
What are the two or three most important things you’ve learned about school leadership from observing and studying it?
Over the past decade I have visited hundreds of schools and talked with thousands of school principals and teacher leaders, and in all cases there are several important things that they school leaders do.
First, they work to make school culture and environment a positive one, where all are respected, there is a sense of purpose in the school that is clear and focused on students, and the contributions of everyone are celebrated.
Second, they build trusting relationships by being consistent, following through, and caring about the learning of teachers and students.
Third, work in the classroom is supported and celebrated—the administrative side of the school is well organized and dependable.
They also say that school leaders connect with all staff and community—food service workers, secretaries, custodians, parents, and teachers—fostering energy and commitment.
In short they make the school an enjoyable place to work with positive relationships and a clear, shared direction.
What would you say to a principal in his or her first year on the job?
When a new principal enters the building many expectations, issues, and demands confront them—some positive, some quite difficult; some obvious and some hidden. While the regular administrative issues need to be addressed, it is key to learn about the culture of the school.
Every school has a culture—that set of norms and values, traditions and ceremonies—that shape everything that occurs.
Early on, a new principal needs to do several things right away. First, learn about the current culture. Find out what are the ways teachers interact, work together (or not), and share ideas. Ask about the important traditions of the school and the ceremonies and celebrations that give the school life from August to June.
Second, delve into the history of the school and find out what shaped the culture. Who were the prior principals and what were they like? What were the ways previous principals interacted with teachers, students and parents? Ask yourself how you are different from these prior leaders. Consider the history of change in the school—was it a positive experience or a grueling trudge?
Finally, talk to teachers about what they like best about the school, aspects that really make them proud and happy to work there. Consider nurturing and celebrating these in the early months in the school year.
From your perspective what seem to be the qualities of leaders who thrive in their work?
School leaders who both enjoy their work and who are successful at helping teachers and students learn seem to exhibit several characteristics. They have:
• A clear set of values focused on students.
• The ability to build positive relationships with staff and between staff.
• An understanding of the administrative side of schools, with a strong sense of the how to foster a positive school culture.
• A clear knowledge of how to enhance the learning of staff.
• The ability to do complex problem solving.
• A healthy balance in their own lives that fosters positive relations within and outside school.
• A sense of humor.
What thoughts do you have about how leaders might develop those qualities?
There are many ways to build skills and knowledge about leading and about oneself. Leaders have told me that they have developed deeper understandings and knowledge through:
• Great professional development that engages their minds and hearts.
• Good colleagues who ask tough questions, offer interesting or complex ideas, and who deeply understand school leadership.
• A personal approach to gaining insights, sometimes called experiential learning. This involves analysis of one’s actions and the reactions or consequences followed by building new insights about what happened, and then experimenting with a new approach based on these insights.
• Reading. And not only educational or leadership sources but novels, short stories, blogs, plays, and personal reflections on life. These can push and expand understanding of schools, people, and oneself.
A common concern expressed by both new and experienced principals and teacher leaders has to do with teachers who are reluctant to engage in new practices. What ideas or practices would you offer to those leaders?
Paradoxically, leaders in all organizations need to find a balance of change and stability. Pacing a change means that movement forward does not unbalance the boat.
But if the needs of children are not being addressed, a red light should come on and leaders need to develop a sense of urgency and commitment to the changes needed to serve children.
Change is never easy and in schools, with so many years of changes, some staff may be reluctant to jump into new curricula or teaching approaches. While some of these changes were perhaps “bandwagons” and disappeared, others are useful trains to jump aboard (such as job-embedded staff development and the use of data for decision making, to name two).
But teachers have become both wary and weary at times, resistant to trying new approaches. Here are some suggestions from teacher leaders, principals, and those who study schools.
• Connect the change to existing values and purposes. Most new techniques exist to accomplish existing goals—but one needs to be clear how they do.
• Provide the needed resources, support, and time to make the implementation of new ideas smooth and (relatively) easy. Most classroom or school level changes have to be fit into existing routines—it takes time, professional learning, and materials to do this. Leaving one of these out can crash any new initiative.
• Understand and acknowledge the concerns of teachers. The history of change for seasoned staff is not always a positive one. Some of the concerns and resistance come from the reality of other failed reforms. Acknowledge these past efforts that raise concerns and show how the new efforts will be different.
• Fullan talks about seeking small successes; I agree. Identify the small successes along the way but also celebrate the larger victories months if not years into the implementation.
In what ways do you recommend principals spend their time, energy, and resources to improve schools?
I would suggest that principals think about their time as an investment in school improvement. As we know, principals engage in hundreds of different activities in a day, work on a large set of problems and issues, and have interactions with dozens if not hundreds of different people.
Principals should see each of these activities as an investment of their time and energy, an opportunity to make the school better. Where principals spend their time is one of the largest single investments in any school. Here are some things to consider:
• Each activity communicates a message about the values and the mission of the school. These foster a clearer focus on what’s important. What messages are you sending?
• Every problem that is solved—from working with a disheartened teacher to insuring that buses are available for a field trip—increase the successes of the school. Which problems are you choosing to address?
• Every positive interaction—with a student, staff member, or community member—is a way to shape the school culture, to enhance motivation, and to build commitment. Are you aware of every interaction? Or do you slide through the day unaware that this one interaction may be important to the other person?
Using time wisely, focused on the right activities, problems, and interactions fosters school improvement. All of these—small and large, are investments in success.