Creating school cultures with high levels of interpersonal accountability


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Our promises create our lives. Our promises give life to our purposes and goals. Our promises move us into action… Life works to the degree we keep our promises. —Dave Ellis

Imagine a school in which:

• everyone spoke with candor and respect;

• agendas were on the table, not hidden;

• important conversations were conducted in meeting rooms rather than in parking lots;

• essential work was completed on time according to the agreed upon specifications; and

• meetings began and ended as scheduled with everyone present, prepared, and fully engaged.

For many educators, such a work setting would be beyond their imagination.

But cultures founded on integrity and accountability among members of the school community are attainable when leaders commit themselves to cultivating such habits in themselves and others.

In these schools: 

• interpersonal accountability replaces mandates and high-stakes testing as the primary motivating force in the continuous improvement of teaching and learning;

• teachers feel responsible to one another for the actions they take to steadily improve their work;

• teachers speak candidly about their perceptions and beliefs In team meetings and other learning and decision-making settings without fear of judgment or retribution; and

• teachers make and keep promises to one another about the actions they will take to improve the learning of all their students, in particular those students who have been unsuccessful in meeting agreed upon standards;

Leaders support the creation of such a culture by:

• consistently speaking with respect and candor;

• keeping their promises and expecting others to do the same; and

• not making promises they cannot keep simply because it is easier to say yes than it is to say no.

When leaders understand the positive energy generated through interpersonal accountability and their central role in creating it, they enable profound changes in the culture of schools.

5 Responses to “Creating school cultures with high levels of interpersonal accountability”


  1. 1 Jamie March 6, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I worked very hard as a school principal at collaboratively creating the school you so beautifully describe in this post. I did have a good measure of success but saw potential for a great deal more. Now that I have left the field of public education and spent the past 3 1/2 years in the business world, where I am helping small business owners to create this type of culture, I keep coming back to the role that tenure plays. The business owners I coach are able to dismiss employees who aren’t aligned with this culture. The principals I know are not. Dennis, I would welcome hearing your thoughts on this difference.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 6, 2013 at 10:26 am

      I appreciate your comment, Jamie. Here’s how I think about it:

      • A few teachers ought not to have been hired in the first place, and students and schools would be better served by their absence.

      • In my experience, though, those teachers are small in number, although in some cases they can have an outsized effect on a school’s culture, particularly when their poor performance or bullying behavior is not firmly addressed by both administrators and peers. (A culture of interpersonal accountability would also ask teachers to address such problems. It would not be the sole responsibility of principals.)

      • Deming’s recommendation to drive out fear (as I remember it) when seeking to continuously improve quality comes to mind. It is not wise, in my experience, to create rules or procedures to address problems caused by outliers, particularly when those rules will have a dampening effect on the energy of the school community. Instead, I think the best approach is to address those problems directly and firmly in an individualized way (as we want teachers to do in their classrooms).

      • Perhaps it comes down to this: Would schools be better places for young people and adults if principals were free to fire at will as are owners of some businesses? My answer would be “no.”

      Perhaps readers will have other perspectives to help inform this conversation.

  2. 3 DR March 7, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Well said, Dennis,

    Clear Expectations + Accountability + Communication = a focus on learning!

    True leaders cultivate a culture based on the norms of high expectations, shared responsibility, mutual respect, and relational trust.

  3. 4 Jamie March 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Dennis, Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment. I completely agree with you that leaders need to address problems on an individual basis. You may not know me well enough to know that I didn’t shy away from that, yet still found some teachers exerted a negative force on the culture of the school (while still being solid teachers in the classroom).

    To clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that principals should be able to fire employees at will. I guess I’d prefer to see something between what tenure is now and at will firing. If we were to create a public school system from scratch today, would tenure be part of it? If you would still include tenure I’d be curious to know more about why you feel that way. And, I may be misunderstanding you but, doesn’t tenure have it’s own set of rules and procedures? Just a few more thoughts on this topic that can get me going. Thanks for listening… Jamie

    • 5 Dennis Sparks March 8, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      I am not an expert on tenure, Jamie. It is likely that it came into existence to solve a problem, and it’s likely that that problem had to do with nepotism and other forms of favoritism and as a response to capricious decisions by administrators. Tenure requires that employees be given due process and that certain procedures be followed before they can be dismissed.

      There undoubtedly have been abuses of the tenure process. But I don’t know how widespread those abuses have been, although I’m sure that research and other professional literature have valuable descriptions regarding both the problems and how they could be remedied.


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