Nine Hard Truths About School Culture for Campus Leaders

Recent interviews and reflection of hiring practices have caused me pause. I will take a “culture builder” on our team any day before a “content expert.” Don’t get me wrong knowing the content one is hired to teach is vitally important but inevitably there is a candidate in the mix who knows the content well, but can ALSO contribute the growth of a positive campus culture. Failure to select candidates that aspire to grow positive classroom cultures in which the voices of all students are heard results in a content expert who cannot connect with kids.

Rerouting to recent reflections, if we believe this to be true for teachers we hire, then we, as campus leaders, must lead the same way. On the journey to improving student achievement, we tend to get stuck in slapping at initiatives that must be in every classroom. Our approach in bringing these worthy initiatives to scale often is without conversations centered around our personal and campus values and beliefs. We miss the human factor and prescribe steps to implementation resulting in confusion, resentment, and ultimately a leader who cannot connect with teachers. When you fail to connect with teachers and seek only compliance, school culture suffers.

According to a 2018 ASCD Article, “School Climate and Culture”, School culture refers to the way teachers and other staff members work together and the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share. A positive school climate and school culture promote students’ ability to learn.

Here are my reflections. I’m calling them the ‘Nine Hard Truths About School Culture for Campus Leaders’
1. You alone as the campus leader cannot foster a positive campus culture, it takes the right team. However, you alone can destroy it… quickly.
2. “Over valuing Compliance”- Don’t fall prey to the trap of thinking the more complaint your people are the better your culture. Compliance does not foster innovation. Demanding conformity/compliance does quite the opposite.
3. Improving the culture of your school will not alone guarantee improved academic achievement, however neglecting it is a sure-fire plan to student achievement decline.
4. Crucial conversations are paired well with a hefty helping of relationships. Culture is destroyed when we walk into tough conversation in the absence of a relationship. It is also destroyed when we never have the “crucial conversations” because we never establish the relationships.
5. Have an opinion, make it known, and ask others theirs… OFTEN.
6. The social and emotional health of staff and students is directly affected by the culture of a school. Period.
7. Find the pep in your step. Care too much. Smile too much. Get way too excited. I have never seen an abundance of negative people led by an overly positive person.
8. Isolate the naysayers then work your hardest to find their ‘why’? Start by sharing and living your ‘why’ daily.
9. Bleed hope. Always.


Meet Your Inner Genius

“Sometimes you have to introduce people to their genius, it is not always apparent to them. Great leaders create space for that introduction.”- Unknown

I miss teaching.  I miss designing lessons for kids.  I miss the daily gratification at knowing you helped one of your toughest smile or taste success.  I miss car rides home from a long day lost in thought about what I can do differently tomorrow to reach the one I missed today.  However, all good campus leaders never allow their hearts to stray too far from the classroom. After all it is the act of teaching we are obligated and privileged to support.

One of my greatest areas of recent reflection and passion is the concept of being a “teaching Principal.”  In other words, how to be the best I can at truly supporting the growth of educators so they can reach any child and ALL children.  Better yet, to inspire them to request the “tough ones”, to engage in risks because mistakes are celebrated, and to open their doors to feedback, and to encourage the open doors of their peers next door.

Not to over simplify my learning and growth in this area but it really comes down to believing in the inner genius in each teacher.  When a common set of teaching and learning beliefs are established and expected by all, you can move past the surface level compliance conversations and really listen to each other.  Listen to learn and not to respond.  Leaders create space for listening to the ideas that teachers feel are important because they know teachers are bringing the voices of their students forward.  Isn’t this the same thing we want in student centered classrooms?  Lessons centered around the needs and voices of students.

It’s on us then to create spaces, structures, and systems that allow the inner genius of each of our teams to come to life.  When this happens, culture grows, your leadership team becomes more than department heads, teachers and students share agenda items for meetings, efficacy is at an all time high, and learning cannot be stopped.  I don’t have to miss teaching anymore…


Restoring Hope in Public Education

A Life’s work In Question

I have been struggling… a lot. I have been struggling with promoting innovation in rigid structure of a seven period day. I have wondered if we can be the agents of change we want to be. Public education is in crisis- there is a movement of vouchers, private schools, home schools, etc. People are looking for other agencies to do it better. We have businessmen making policy for education. Funding is decreasing, class sizes are getting bigger… I WAS on the brink of losing hope.
I won’t venture to speak for each of you but I found myself lost and without purpose. Is it all worth it? What am I missing?
I have come to realize that one of the greatest assets of our nation is a free and appropriate public education. I know and believe this. I don’t like what it has become. I don’t like the hideous attempts at improvement that push us towards standardization. I don’t like that what we teach and that the seven period day we teach it in hasn’t changed in 50 years. But I am determined to stay the course and fight for the change, to be the voice for what the founders of public education meant for it to be. I can’t fail our future. We cannot allow our life’s work to go down without fighting like hell. The eyes of former students and courageous teachers speak to my soul. It’s worth it, alright. They are worth it. I’m in… are you?

School Transformation… A Sobering Realization

I’ve not written for a long while.  In keeping to the title of my blog, Vulnerable Leadership, truth is I have been a little lost and disillusioned in my school transformation journey.  The non-negotiables I firmly held to regarding school transformation have been challenged in the past 4 months causing me to pause, reflect, and grow.

The reason for the “lost” feeling initially was caused by Hurricane Harvey resulting in a foot of water all across campus and the destruction of a third of our families homes.  We kicked off the year clapping our teachers in on a red carpet of their own in a “Let’s Hear It For Our Heroes” event, heavily focused on ensuring teachers felt as valuable as indeed they are to our children and to the field. Copious amounts of time was spent in leadership meetings discussing next steps to support growing each individual teacher, in analysis of previous year’s data, how to foster authentic collaboration in PLCs, and creating conditions where teachers can be as successful as they desired.   I held true to the concept of ensuring all staff knew and believed in the importance of personal and professional growth, resisting complacency at all costs, and commitments to use data to drive all instruction.

I still believe firmly in the concept of the importance of the leader’s role in creating conditions for teacher growth and success, in turn teachers’ fostering classroom conditions in whish students feel inspired to grow and take risks.    In fact this was the focus of all my study and work throughout each summer in preparation for each new school year.  If the conditions were right, teachers would feel inspired, encouraged, and challenged to continuously improve and grow for kids.

But what happens when conditions are not enough, when the emotional state of your staff, students, and community is complete instability, when resources are gone (resources teachers finally found value in to nudge more student ownership and resources teachers spent a great deal of time and thought creating and funding), and the energy poured into making the building a place that invokes pride, warmth, and inspiration  is wasted as a result of a unexpected natural disaster.  As a leader, how do you continue to inspire learning with minimal control over what we know as “conditions for learning?”   How do you continue to move a campus forward and continue transformation and optimal levels of student and teacher learning?  After all, I believed establishing conditions for growth and success was absolutely one the most important roles of a campus principal.

As a side note and truth be known, I was mad- uselessly mad, but mad.  We had worked so hard to overcome a culture of complacency and mediocrity where we blamed the poor achievement results of our students on their backgrounds.  This was year three in our journey to transform our school- the year we would start to see some of the fruits of our labor? What now?  Why us?

Another vulnerable moment here…  I have always prided myself on valuing shared decisions, meaningful collaboration, being present, asking questions and planning for these things with intentionality.  However, a sobering reflection came to me about in the midst of this disaster, setting conditions for learning MUST be collaborative too.  I’m not sure why it took a horrible flood to bring me to this realization but I am taking the lesson and running with it because I, quite vulnerably, didn’t know where to start to rebuild.  Assuming I knew alone based on numbers and observations, the next step to reviving our spirit and souls to a focus on learning and growth is irresponsible and insulting.

So collaboration in setting conditions for learning has moved from the monthly leadership meetings, quarterly site based decision making committee meetings, and weekly administrator meetings to weekly staff meetings where all staff and students help set the agenda, to individual professional learning plans in which staff tell us what they want more of based on efficacy and student data, leadership meetings open to all who desire leadership, and changes in campus operations are driven by student and teacher feedback.

School transformation leadership to me now is less about “setting” conditions for learning but rather “supporting” conditions for learning.  The work on the hearts and beliefs of our staff the past two and a half years is the only thing that carried us through the past four months.  We didn’t allow learning to become secondary to “just making it.” We knew our kids needed more.  2018 will find Brookside collaboratively setting and supporting conditions for the best come back yet.

A Leader’s Sense of Self-Efficacy

When a new leader inherits a campus, they also inherit the campus staff.  This may be true for new managers and supervisors in private sectors as well.  Success in these private sector organizations is often measured by profit, meeting timelines, and or customer happiness.  For a new campus principal, measuring the success of an educator is not quite as a cut and dry.   There are several factors that “muddy” these waters, such as differences in classroom demographics and student starting points, ineffective standardized assessments, and previous opportunities for growth.   Campus leaders find themselves in a unique situation requiring a unique skill set.  I like to call this skill set a “leaders sense of self-efficacy.”   Efficacy is defined as the ability to produce a desired or intended result.    When I refer to leadership efficacy in education, I am referring to the campus leader’s ability to support the growth and professional learning of all staff.  This sounds succinct and simple but its implications are really very complex and difficult.  Consider the diversity of teacher training programs, emergence of alternative certification programs, and past opportunities/expectations for professional learning.

A leader’s sense of self-efficacy could be defined as a leader’s confidence in their ability to grow, support, advocate for, and measure  the professional learning of each of their staff members.  This is vastly different from sending a team of teachers to a conference and expecting that they each come back ready to positively impact student achievement.  It is about the leader’s confidence in their ability to assess the instructional needs of the educator, effectively communicate these needs to the educator, collaboratively engage the educator in developing a plan for their professional learning, and measuring success. Slapping at whole campus initiatives while pretending the needs of all educators on campus are the same is no different than teachers teaching to the middle and expecting all students to assimilate.

My thinking is if campus leaders have a weak sense of efficacy (or desire) to grow, support, advocate for, and measure the learning of their teachers, the campus runs the risk of condoning less than high yield instructional strategies,  the presence of complacency is evident, and uninspired learners (staff and students) create a status quo culture.  Research shows that when educators believe they can’t reach certain students, they don’t.  When leaders believe they can’t reach certain teachers, they don’t and won’t.  As a result students suffer and teachers are not given the opportunities for growth they deserve. The question then becomes how do we grow a campus leader’s sense of self-efficacy?  How do we ensure learning continues for our campuses’ lead learners?



Lead to inspire

If our actions do not inspire people to make positive changes, then we are not leaders.  In my opinion , leadership is reserved for those who value inspiration as it relates to organizational improvement.  In my blogging hiatus from Harvey, I have been reminded of the importance of the concept of leading through inspiration.  We have heard leadership is not a position or title but rather a service to those in our care.  Can you imagine what we would be capable of accomplishing if we truly lived out this belief? Can you imagine the possibilities if we truly owned the success of others in our care like our own?

I vowed long ago to never subject anyone to a meeting that I conducted in which I did not plan for inspiration.  To plan for inspiration implies you know and have taken the time to recognize the emotional needs of your audience.  Secondly,  planning for inspiration implies, that based on these needs of your audience, you have taken time to reflect on their needs and carefully craft a plan that will resonate with them emotionally, provoking them to consider improvement or change based on the needs of those in their care.   Our personal “to do” lists as a leaders and what we need to accomplish must never trump the intentional planning for the needs of others.  As educators, lessons go awry when we forget we are teaching children, not subjects.  The same is true for leaders, if we fail to recognize we are leading people and not tasks, then we do NOT deserve the title of leader.

In my opinion, we are too easy on the so-called leaders in our lives.  Leadership shall be reserved for those who inspire those around them to be better version of themselves, those that recognize the importance of sacrificing  their own agendas to support the needs of those whom we serve, and to those who own the failures and successes of those on their team as their own.

The campus I serve is approaching its third week post hurricane Harvey.  Cement floors, visible sheet rock, and high emotions on behalf of our students and teachers have become common place sights and feelings at Brookside.  Hope, pride, and laughter are not as easy to come by as they were just three weeks ago when we clapped our students in on the red carpet for their first day of school.  As a principal, worry consumes me regarding the moments of lost instructional time, supplies, furniture, and former motivations of our staff and students which we spent so much time igniting and inspiring just a short time ago.  Leadership calls me to silence the worry and listen.  Listen and see the hidden hope and long-term lessons waiting to be told through this disaster.  Leadership calls me to remember my primary job is to inspire this community right where they are… in the arms of each other.

Being present is different than being visible

In light of Hurricane Harvey and its devastating effects on our community, my heart tells me to back up with some thoughts on leadership presence which, to me, is vitally different from visibility.  Early in my administrative career I heard a phrase that I wholeheartedly agree with, “You can’t lead from your office.”  I have reflected often on leaders that I felt were supportive and “hands on.”  The characteristic of visible stays with me.  The idea that to lead an organization in the right direction we must step out of our air-conditioned offices and put our eyes on the happenings of our building remains a concept I firmly embrace.  Yet for me when looking to TRANSFORM an organization, a school, visibility will never be enough.  In my experience, to be visible is to show support through being seen. To be present means to be physically and emotionally invested in hearing, responding to, and supporting the needs of the organization.  There is never a day when I don’t come back to my office after observing classrooms in deep reflection.  This reflection is where the work of being present is ignited.  From this reflection, teacher leaders are identified and empowered to affect change, next steps for department and campus professional learning are noted, and social emotional supports for staff members in need are put in motion.  It boggles my mind when any organization maps out its inflexible plan for employee learning and growth before its clients, in our case our students, have even entered the building.  Being present as a leader is truly the idea that we must constantly put ourselves in situations to be able to respond to staff needs, so that they are more apt to put themselves in situations to respond to the diverse needs of their students.  School transformation will never be supported on a series of professional learning requirements that are disconnected from the needs of the students our teachers are teaching tomorrow.  Being present allows us as leaders to make “real life” decisions regarding the support our teachers need to change learners’ lives.  Our leadership agenda must never drive the learning requirements of our staff.  So…  you better believe when our staff and students return after the devastation from Hurricane Harvey…  my faculty meeting will not be about the state appraisal system or technology initiatives.  It will be about holding hands and weathering this recovery together.  This comes through presence.