Posts Tagged 'school culture'

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?

Schools are intensely interpersonal


“[T]he transmission of knowledge is not done in a vacuum. The quality and influence of relationships has a tremendous influence on how and what is shared, and with whom.”

Tarsi Dunlop

Schools are intensely and unrelentingly interpersonal. That’s why the continuous improvement of teaching and learning requires strong relationships founded on trust.

And that’s also why “reforms” predictably fail when they are based primarily on technical remedies such as high-stakes testing and poorly-designed teacher evaluation systems.

A recent study supports those conclusions:

“What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

“Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose….”

High-quality teaching and learning for all students requires that administrators and teacher leaders develop school cultures that have at their core high levels of integrity, mutual respect, and trust, attributes that are challenging to cultivate and even more challenging to sustain.

Leaders who ignore this challenge or minimize its demands will fail in their most important responsibility—the creation of school communities in which everyone thrives, no matter their age or role.

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.

The creation of a collaborative culture requires skillful leadership

Dennis Sparks

Teacher isolation is so deeply ingrained in the traditional fabric of schools that leaders cannot simply invite teachers to create a collaborative culture. They must identify and implement specific, strategic interventions that help teachers work together rather than alone. —Richard DuFour

If the goal is quality teaching in all classrooms for the benefit of all students, then it is essential that principals and teacher leaders create a high-performance culture which has professional learning and meaningful teamwork at its core.

The creation and maintenance of such a culture against the forces of entropy require intentional, skillful leadership. It does not happen by accident.

Successful principals and teacher leaders are clear about the attributes of such cultures and take daily actions to promote them.

They understand, for instance, the importance of:

  • and promise keeping (we understand that continuous progress requires making and keeping our promises to one another).

In your experience, what specific, strategic interventions help teachers work together rather than alone?

Overcoming professional isolation

Dennis Sparks

Instead of inviting teachers to watch one another teach, to debate best classroom practices, and to pool resources, the school culture walls them off and parcels out their time. It actually promotes professional distance. —Mary Ann Smith

Meaningful collaboration will not occur unless administrators and teacher leaders address common structural barriers such as lack of:

• time,

• meeting space conducive to extended conversation,

• data and other forms of evidence to use in making decisions and assessing progress toward goals, and

• skillful facilitation of team meetings.

Common cultural barriers to successful collaboration include:

• confusion about important goals and methods of achieving them,

• a lack of focus and motivation regarding those goals and methods,

• the absence of shared beliefs regarding students’ ability and the school’s capacity to achieve those goals, and

• low levels of interpersonal trust among educators.

What structures and attributes of school culture have proven essential in overcoming professional isolation in your setting?

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