Archive for the 'School Culture' Category

The challenge of changing ourselves and influencing others

A quality shared by most resilient people is the ability to see the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

As a result, they understand that:

• Changing ourselves is hard, even when our health and lives may depend on it.

• Changing others is harder.

• Changing organizational culture and practices is even harder because it combines the difficulties of changing ourselves and others with the challenge of overcoming institutional inertia and active resistance.

In addition, most of us significantly underestimate what’s required to alter long-standing habits of mind and behavior in ourselves and others and to create organizational cultures of continuous improvement.

And, at the same time, we significantly overestimate the extent to which humans are rational and motivated to change because of evidence and logic.

That’s why reading a book, listening to an inspiring speaker, or attending a “research-based” workshop are almost always insufficient to produce long-term, meaningful change.

The essential elements of change

The most compelling explanations of what’s required to produce significant change are offered  by Alan Deutschman in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life and by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Deutschman explains that people make significant and lasting changes by “relating,” “repeating,” and “reframing.”

Relate underscores the importance of sustained relationships with individuals and groups to inspire hope and provide support.

Repeat involves learning, practicing, and mastering new skills until they become habits.

And reframe means finding others ways to think about a situation. Because established frames resist facts and reasoned arguments, deep-rooted beliefs and conceptual frameworks must be identified and altered to support desired changes.

A problem, Deutschman says, is that leaders too often rely on relatively ineffective change strategies—facts (human beings are not as rational as we think we are), fear (at best it’s a short-term motivator), and force (there are many ways it can be resisted) to promote change.

Instead, successful change efforts offer a sense of hopefulness that problems can be solved through a genuine sense of community that enables the acquisition of new habits.

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain that our behavior is shaped by three forces—our intellect, our emotions, and the situations in which we find ourselves.

To explain their ideas the Heaths offer the metaphor of an elephant with a rider:

The rider is our intellect. Although modest in size compared to the elephant, it plans and directs.

The elephant is emotion. It provides the energy that creates and sustains movement.

The path is the situation or environment in which the rider and elephant find themselves. that either supports improved performance or hinders it. (For example, strong teamwork requires a “path” that includes regularly-scheduled meeting time, relevant data to make decisions and assess progress, and training in group skills.)

We promote change, the Heaths say, when we:

• create clarity of purpose and direction (influence the rider),

• engage people’s emotions (motivate the elephant), and

• create environments (shape the path) that enable rather than hinder the desired performance.

What, in your experience, are the essential elements of change in individuals and organizations?

I will be taking a sabbatical during the next few months to refresh and renew. Best wishes for an enjoyable summer (or winter if you happen to be Down Under).

There is no substitute for resilient leadership

Resilient people are often called upon to be leaders, a responsibility that both draws upon their resilience and cultivates it for future use.

Early in my career I did not understand the importance of leadership. Schools, I thought, would improve if teachers were simply given the tools to do their work and the freedom to use them.

But then I had an opportunity to closely observe a school whose teachers and parents were frustrated and dispirited. Students performed poorly, and everyone felt hopeless about the future.

Eventually a new principal came to the school. Over the next 3 years things got better. Staff and parent morale improved, as did teaching and student learning.

That principal eventually went on to another assignment, and the school’s new principal was more like the first one. Things spiraled downwards into a hopelessness that felt more profound because of the school’s rollercoaster journey.

Later on in my professional development work I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching and learning.

I enjoyed those conversations immensely except when teachers were angry and cynical.

Without exception, I observed that those teachers were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three.

My work came to focus on principals and teacher leaders because without their skillful leadership teacher professional learning and teamwork were unlikely to occur in ways that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

What is your experience—is it possible to continuously improve teaching and learning without skillful leadership?

6 ways to ensure that things don’t change


Over the years I’ve written countless articles and posts on how administrators and teacher leaders can affect positive change through school culture, professional development, and the application of emotional intelligence, just to mention a few possible sources of influence.

But I have never approached that challenge from the flip side—what school leaders must stop doing if they want to create a ceaseless flow of positive energy that improves teaching and learning for all students.

So here are 6 ways to ensure low staff motivation:

1. Tell people what to do. Make demands: “I am the boss. Your job is to do what I tell you to do or else.”

2. Explain that what you’re telling others to do is a mandate (a variation of #1): “I don’t like this either, but we have to do it.”

3. Cite research combined with a demand: “Research says, so do it.”

4. Use guilt: “If you are really a professional (or care about your students), you will do this.”

5. Emphasize that you are smarter and/or have better intentions than they do: “If you would just read the research (or analyze the data), you’d see that this is the right thing to do.”

6. Explain that you have their best interests at heart: “Do this for your own good,” or “Trust me because I know what’s good for you.”

What would you add to my list?

No place for hatred…


Good teachers have always created inclusive classrooms.

Their work is made more difficult, though, by bigoted and demagogic political leaders who speak to this nation’s fears and arouse hatred.

While I have been pleased to see so many politicians from across the political spectrum rebuke Donald Trump for his divisive and hateful views, it may be too little and too late.

Even now Trump continues to be the Republican front runner, and I am deeply concerned about the damage he is likely to do here and abroad before he is done.

In such times the work of good teachers and administrators in building inclusive classrooms and schools is more important than ever.

Adult bullies…


Bullies come in all sizes and roles. There are playground bullies, cyber bullies, and  even faculty-meeting bullies.

When I was young someone older told me that the best way to deal with bullies was to stand up to them.

While that advice isn’t relevant for all types of bullying, it does apply to faculty meeting bullies. Someone standing up to him or her—one-to-one or in a group setting—is often all that’s required to end the bullying, or at least to blunt it.

Standing up to a bully, no matter the age of the bully, requires the exercise of courage in the face of our fear.

But fear is not a sufficient reason to allow bullies to destroy what others have worked hard to create—supportive relationships, teamwork, and improved teaching and learning.

Each of us has the capacity to act with courage in the face of destructive forces although it is seldom an easy thing to do.

It helps to prepare by becoming clear about what you want to say and when and where you want to say it. It’s also important to rehearse in a safe environment, perhaps with a trusted colleague, and to be ready for the emotional escalation some bullies apply to ensure they get their way.

Fortunately, each time we practice courage—like exercising a muscle—we become a bit stronger and more confident in future situations.

Unfortunately, it is likely that life will give you many opportunities to practice such courage in both professional and personal settings.

Beliefs matter


Beliefs matter because they have a profound and often invisible effect on what teachers and administrators say and do each day.

Beliefs are also habitual, which means they are often applied to new situations without a full understanding of their consequences.

My three previous posts addressed professional learning, school culture, and teamwork, each of which has implicit beliefs that channel them in productive or unproductive ways.

For example:

• If school leaders believe that good teachers are born, not made, high-quality professional learning will have a low priority.

• If school leaders believe that new ideas and research-based practices should be sufficiently compelling in themselves for their full adoption, they will ignore the influence of school culture on innovation.

• If school leaders believe that professional learning and instructional improvement are the sole responsibility of teachers, they will fail to create the necessary structures and incentives that enable strong teamwork.

Left unexamined and unaltered, some beliefs may have a profound negative effect on student learning.

Here are several such beliefs I proposed in a previous post:

• Some students cannot be expected to learn very much because of their families, economic status, or race.

• Teaching is delivering, “telling,” and performing. Leadership is directing and motivating.

• Because teaching is telling/performing, content is “delivered,” leadership is directing, and the primary challenge of leadership is motivating teachers, continuous improvement results from telling/delivering/directing/motivating.

• Most significant questions and problems of teaching and learning have one right answer, and an “expert” knows it.

• The best means of “delivering” professional development “content” is through speakers, workshops, and courses. PowerPoints are essential to such delivery.

• It takes years to make significant and demonstrable improvements in the quality of professional learning, teaching, and student achievement.

Another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding teachers’ capacity for growth, which I wrote about here:

“Just as it’s essential for principals and teacher leaders to believe that student learning can be improved by skillful teaching, it’s essential that principals and teacher leaders believe that through well-designed professional development and teamwork virtually all teachers can become effective, if not masterful.

“Believing in the capacity of students to learn at higher levels without a parallel belief in the capacity of teachers to successfully teach them — given appropriate support — can only lead to frustration and failure.”

Yet another example is leaders’ beliefs regarding the qualities that are important in new teachers, a subject I address here.

(Other posts on the subject of teaching can be found here.)

Administrators and teacher leaders are not powerless to affect colleagues’ beliefs. In a post on “frames” I wrote:

“Put simply, frames are the mental frameworks we use to think about things. Our thinking, and hence our ability to change, is limited by these deeply rooted, beneath-the-surface systems of beliefs and ideas. While difficult to dispel, frames can be changed. The process begins with awareness of the dominant frame and its influence on practice and the ability to conceptualize alternative frames that better serve student learning.”

In that post I suggested two frames that I believe interfere with change and offer alternative ways to conceptualize them.

I closed that post by inviting readers to identify an existing frame that may be unconsciously preserving the status quo in in their setting.

I encourage you to do the same.

School culture matters


School culture is an incredibly powerful but often invisible force that shapes a school community’s work. It is more powerful than new ideas and innovative practices.

Administrators and teacher leaders who ignore school culture or underestimate its influence will almost certainly fail in improving teaching and learning for all students.

While school culture may be largely invisible, some of its qualities can be discerned by observers who are attuned to them.

In an earlier post I suggest 9 symptoms of a problematic school culture.

Among the most common of those symptoms are that:

• the most honest conversations happen in parking lots rather than meeting rooms,

• in just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like veterans who are resigned to the status quo and deeply entrenched in their ways, and

• educators feel more professionally connected to followers on social media they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

In another post that focused on desirable cultural shifts I wrote:

“[N]ew cultures [cannot] be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

In that post I identified several shifts that occur when school cultures move in a positive direction:

confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

I encourage you to read and study these essays and to have candid conversations with colleagues about the culture of your school or school system and to determine what can be done with urgency to strengthen it.

You can read more about school culture here.

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