Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Is Our Culture?

A Faculty Discussion...

We recently had a transformational afternoon at #Cantiague thanks to an important conversation during our Faculty Enhancement Opportunity (it's our term for a Faculty Meeting because no one wants to go to a meeting... but that is a whole other post) about our school culture. Although we have had many discussions about our collective vision for the school, conversations about the things we stand for as non-negotiables and talks about the things we believe in philosophically, we have never directly reflected on the culture of our school. What is our culture? What makes Cantiague, Cantiague? What feelings and emotions are evoked when thinking about Cantiague? These, and many more, were the questions that helped frame our discussion about culture.  

What is Culture?

From my perspective, culture is rarely a tangible "thing" but it is made up of those things you feel... sometimes things you see, hear and can even touch but ultimately, culture is about feelings and emotions. You get a sense of a school's culture from the parking lot and the exterior of the building - a dimly lit exterior versus a brightly lit exterior tells you something about culture. You get an even better sense of a school's culture from the way you are greeted by the Main Office team - a warm smile and greeting versus no one looking up to acknowledge your presence tells you a lot about the culture. And your understanding of the school's culture is solidified after you spend about 30 minutes with the principal - someone who has positive, healthy and compassionate relationships with all members of the community versus someone who doesn't leave the office and complains about the staff tells you a whole LOT about the culture of a school. 

"A school’s culture can be defined as the traditions, beliefs,
policies, and norms within a school that can be shaped,
enhanced, and maintained through the school’s principal and

teacher-leaders." (Short & Greer, 1997). Although I do agree that traditions, beliefs and norms impact a school's culture, we have to be careful about not letting traditions, beliefs and norms become code for... "This is the way we have always done things..." and an excuse for not embracing innovation and evolution as part of a school's culture. I see culture as a living thing that is constantly evolving and going through iterations - not in a rapid way but over time, the culture of a building can be changed, can be nurtured, can evolve - for better or worse. 

Culture is not a fixed thing or entity. I think if culture had a mindset it would be a growth mindset or innovator's mindset. I think culture is result of the feelings and emotions that are experienced within a school and we know those evolve over time based on what is going on within a school community. Unless they don't change. And then, they won't evolve. In that case, the culture of a school will be fixed. Culture will be so entrenched in tradition that there will be no change. Culture will be stagnant. I would argue that in that case, culture would also be negative. 

The culture of school can look quite different depending on the school but the one common denominator in every school that always impacts the culture, in positive or negative ways, is the principal. 

School Culture: Perpetuated by the Principal

Yes, a school's culture evokes emotions and feelings in people within and outside of the organization and it is my belief that the principal has the biggest impact on a school's culture. The principal doesn't necessarily single-handily create the school's culture but that one person has the greatest impact on the way a school's culture feels. Yes, the actions of many make up the culture of a school (students, staff and families) but the tone and leadership style of one (the principal) will dramatically impact (positively or negatively) the trajectory of the school's culture. A horrible manager will perpetuate a negative culture. A confident, informed and compassionate instructional leader will perpetuate a positive culture. Either way, the principal directly impacts the culture of a school.

So Now What?

Regardless of how you define culture or whether or not you agree with my belief that the building principal has the greatest impact on culture, the fact remains that a school's culture is something we must be aware of and must attend to for the sake of our entire community. We must know how people feel and what they think when they are in our schools. We must know how our kids feel. We must know how our teachers feel. We must know how our families feel. We must know how members of the community feel because those feelings and emotions will tell us a LOT about our school's culture.  

That was my starting point recently during our F.E.O. (Faculty Enhancement Opportunity) at Cantiague. I thought I had a pretty good handle on our school's culture but then it occurred to me that we had never discussed it as a team - how do the rest of the adults in our building define the culture of our school? So, I posed the question to our staff and asked them to work in groups of 2 to 4 to define our school's culture in 3 words or less. They were then asked to work collaboratively in a Google Slides presentation to share their words and this was intentional because a group of 4th graders taught our staff how to use Google Slides at an F.E.O. earlier in the month and I wanted to reinforce the resource. 

This is what our #Cantiague staff came up with...  

So, now I challenge each of you to go back to your schools and ask the question... What is Our Culture? 


  1. Tony,

    Thanks for always modeling reflective, action-oriented leadership. There are so many layers to the quality of what you've shared here - inviting honest dialogue and feedback, empowering our students, and showcasing teacher voice (to name a few).

    Thanks for consistently leading the way!

    ~ Dennis

  2. Hey Pal,

    You bring up all kinds of interesting points here. My favorite is the notion that we need to openly talk about our culture. Asking people from every stakeholder group -- teachers, parents, community members, students -- how they feel when they come in the building is so incredibly important.

    Framing it as "What makes our school OUR school? What is it that defines us? How would people know that they were at ____________ instead of any other elementary/middle/high school in town?" is a great starting point for the conversation.

    Here's what's interesting, though: I've taught for 23 years in five different schools and that conversation has never happened.

    So my question to you is why do school leaders -- who know a TON about school culture and the impacts that culture can have on a school community -- skip that conversation?

    Is it because they don't think there's time for the conversation? Or because they don't think the culture can be changed? Or because they don't want to know the answers to the questions?

    Anyway -- thanks for making me think tonight! Hope you are well and that your holidays are full of nothing but joy and happiness.

    Rock on,

  3. Tony,
    Thank you for sharing and making me think. I certainly think I know our school's culture and many of the descriptors from the slide show would be the same. However, we don't take the time to talk about our culture as a staff and that conversation needs to happen. I also love the idea of Faculty Enhancement Opportunity...I may have to borrow that:)