Wednesday, April 13, 2016
This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement reflecting my professional experience. I had prepared this manuscript for publication but time eluded me. The blog posts advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.
What is the culture of your school like? What does your school culture say to visitors? Is there a difference between the perceived and the real culture of the school? Is the culture of the school supportive of the school's mission? How can you find the answers to these questions?
Assume the role of a visitor. Take a walk through the school when it is empty. Let the building express itself to you. What artifacts of the culture will you discover? For example; what hangs, or does not hang, on the walls? What is in, or not in, the display cases? What are the slogans really saying? What do the bulletin boards and charts encourage or discourage? What is the physical setting like, and why? Where are the classes for disadvantaged learners, special education, gifted, what do they look like? Why? What is the relationship between seniority and teacher assignments? Are there reserved parking spaces for administrators? Do support staff and professional staff share a lounge?
Examine the available artifacts of the culture. For instance, a brochure on the school, the latest memo from the school leader, the most current newsletter, the PTA news, the literature posted on the staff room bulletin board, the school calendar, report cards, posted rules, your own daily appointment book, and look for any themes or key words that repeat themselves in these samples. What would it all say to a cultural anthropologist?
Now, contrast these findings with what is known about the stated beliefs, vision, and mission of the school. There shouldn't be a difference. In other words, if the school's mission is described in terms of teaching and learning, success for all learners, you shouldn't be confronted with display cases full of sports trophies and wonder where the symbols of success in learning are. You shouldn't read bulletin boards that give messages contrary to the stated mission of the school. The school calendar shouldn't list athletic pep rallies and not academic pep rallies. You shouldn't discover themes or key words emerging from outgoing literature that are not congruent with the vision of the school. And finally, if you're an instructional leader does your appointment book reflect that role or are you spending time at other tasks?
Values of the school construct a context to measure success in clear terms for the members of the school community - staff and learners. Beliefs are generally influenced by what members of the school community feel it takes to be successful. The ceremonies - assemblies, announcements of recognition and reward, public praise, and distribution of resources, serve to bestow laurels of success upon those heroes of the school community exhibiting the desired behaviors of the real school culture.
As Peters and Waterman state, "Let us suppose that we were asked for one all purpose bit of advice for management, one truth that we were able to distill from the excellent companies research. We might tempted to say 'Figure out your value system.' Decide what your company stands for." (Peters and Waterman, p. 279)
What does your school stand for? Are the actions of the staff, in particular yours as a leader, consistent with what you espouse as the guiding goals for your school? What are the values and beliefs of the school?
Karl Scheibe says, "What a person does (his behavior) depends upon what he wants (his values) and what he considers to be true and likely (his beliefs).” (Schiebe, pp. 41-42)
How does this relate to school? Let's look at the results of a study that investigated schools and school leaders. David Dwyer of the Far West Laboratory for educational research and Development examined the roles of principals in instructional management. (Dwyer, p. 6) One of his findings illustrated the significance of the principal's belief system, personality, and previous experience in forming a sense of focus for effective schools. These principals consistently acted upon the direction established by determined values.
As the school leader we can take an active role in nurturing a culture that supports and pursues the school's mission. Remember, practice what you preach. Alan Weiss, author of Making It Work, says "perception is reality, and people believe what they SEE, not what they hear or read." (Weiss, p. 17) Or, as Robert Goldstein says, “The eye remembers what the ear forgets.” (Clark, p. 34)