I wrote previously that culture is about knowing who you are and about knowing your people, and about how you can’t know your people unless you know yourself and where you’re coming from and your emotions and where your head and heart are at.
The next step, after making sure you have those pieces in place to the best of your ability, is to align your core beliefs with your daily actions so that people who work in the organization understand that this is who we are, and this is just what we do here. Everybody in the establishment needs to understand that that is what the culture is here.
If people can’t align the core values that have been established to their personal and outward daily actions, then they don’t belong here. It’s that simple.
And then again, it’s not simple at all, is it. It’s not as simple as saying, “please align with these core values and beliefs.” You’ve seen it all too often – people sit in a room with the best of intentions, they work together to hammer out what everyone believes will be the mission and vision of the school, and then the year gets going, people get lost in their work behind closed doors, things take place, honest, open discussion doesn’t happen as often as it should (always to the detriment of the group… and the students), and all of a sudden it’s the end of the year and the organization’s Core Beliefs, or those finely tuned Mission and Vision statements, all of which everyone worked so hard on and were so excited about, are a distant memory.
Roland Barth wrote, “Show me a school whose inhabitants constantly examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained human learning, and I’ll show you students who graduate with both the capacity and the heart for lifelong learning.”
The notion presented here by Barth ties in directly with my point – unless a school and its inhabitants are constantly examining shared beliefs, core values, mission statements, big picture visions and the like, the direction of the organization can tend to get lost, the path muddied. It is worth remembering that if it is worth saying, if it is worth bringing people together and spending any substantial amount of time on a thing, then it is worth repeating. Multiple times.
This quote by Barth is one I had come across many years ago, probably during that 1st principalship I held at Murphy Elementary School. Like the discussion I had with the Mayor over lunch before the start of that year, this idea has stuck with me through the years, and done a lot to help in the formulation of my thoughts around schools and teaching and learning and students and communities. I ended up staying at that elementary school for 8 years before receiving the internal call to move on. During those years, the idea from Barth that one needed to constantly examinethe school’s culture stuck in my head like no other idea ever has.
For 8 years, we examined the school culture.
For 8 years, we talked about and discussed school culture.
What it looked like in everyday action,
What it sounded like in classrooms and in hallways, in the cafeteria and on the playground,
What it felt like to outsiders who came into our building, and
What it meant if something wasn’t working how we wanted it to work.
These were not easy conversations, some of these. We didn’t like to admit when we had it wrong. We didn’t like how it felt to discuss with people when they weren’t living up to the expectations that we had so painstakingly and lovingly announced publicly. We didn’t like the feeling of starting over constantly. What we discovered throughout this process, however, was that we weren’t wasting our time having fruitless conversations around test scores and academic initiatives. Were these important? Of course they were. We knew that, and they were in place. They had a purpose. They are part of life in the schoolhouse. But they were taking care of themselves.
Because we engrossed ourselves in conversations around Culture and how to constantly “Do Culture” better, everything else took care of itself. After 8 years, we were the only elementary building in the district to be meeting and exceeding in all areas of AYP (remember this??). And the only thing we changed was the Culture of the building. It was the only thing that mattered.