Reflections on transforming school culture

Sitting here on the morning after our four-day focused conversation on transforming school culture with Anthony Muhammad, I find myself in a familiar place:  Trying to sort out exactly what it is that I’ve learned.

While I’m sure that I’ll be mentally wrestling with questions raised during our conversation for weeks, here are some initial reflections that I know I’m going to hold on to:

Transforming schools must begin with a focus on cultural—rather than technical—issues:  Somewhere in the middle of our discussion, Anthony made the case that any efforts to reform schools must begin with a focused effort to change culture rather than structures—and that rang true for me.  After all, there ain’t a teacher on earth who hasn’t seen a million failed “reform efforts” during the course of their careers!

The reason for failure, argues Muhammad, is that buildings are trying to lay new practices and behaviors on top of unhealthy, resistant cultures.

Which leaves me wondering why school leaders always put technical issues first when trying to drive change in their buildings?  Is it because technical issues are easy to implement and to monitor?  Is it because technical issues are easy to explain to stakeholders—teachers, parents, community leaders?  Is it because school leaders are rarely trained in the kinds of skills and dispositions necessary for addressing cultural roadblocks?

Working from the classroom to drive cultural changes in schools can be an intimidating process:  One of the comments that Anthony made during our conversation that got my juices flowing was that Believers—progressive teachers who have an unfailing faith in the students that they serve—need to get a backbone and begin to actively challenge colleagues spreading negative beliefs across buildings.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  I’m picturing an army of activists beating back curmudgeons in a massive apple fight!

But I also know that “getting a backbone” is easier said than done—even for guys like me who’ve read and written enough in the past few years to have a solid understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Despite what I know, I rarely get involved in challenging practices in my buildings.  Instead, I shut my door and avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because of what David Cohen—a brilliant Californian—describes as “The Glass House Effect.”

He writes:  My colleagues may or may not be aware, but I am my own harshest critic. So, mindful of the idea that those in glass houses should not throw stones, I hesitate to head into sensitive areas that challenge my colleagues’ practices or beliefs. We don’t yet have the school culture I’d like to see, where we could be critical friends. If we have a department meeting and I want to challenge someone’s assumption that her grammar worksheets are leading to improved writing, I hesitate because I know my own writing instruction could use improvement too.

Interesting, huh?  Teachers—-fully aware of their own personal strengths and weaknesses—are less likely to challenge colleagues because they know that they don’t have all the answers either.  What’s more, the risk of damaging relationships in buildings restructuring as PLCs—where collaborative work is a non-negotiable—is too great to make challenging others worthwhile.

School leaders need to provide training in change agency to Believers:  Time and again during the course of our conversation, I found myself wanting to be a challenger, but feeling completely unqualified to take any meaningful first steps!  As I’ve mentioned here on the Radical, I’m horrible at working with people.  Understanding influence in a human organization is an area of great personal weakness.

And I can’t believe I’m alone.  My guess is that the majority of Believers are remarkably confident in their abilities as instructors and possess the kinds of technical skills necessary to help change teaching and learning in buildings, but they’ve had little training in how to move others forward.

School leaders interested in finding allies for change efforts need to begin to fill this capacity gap in their schools.  If you’re counting on classroom teachers to become challengers, they’re going to need more than rip-roaring slogans and rah-rah speech.  Instead, they’re going to need a deep and meaningful understanding of adult learners and human behavior.

Effective change agents take the emotion out of conversations:  One of the central points that Anthony makes in Transforming School Culture—-and that appeared time and again in our conversation—-was that conversations around change in schools are often sabotaged by emotion.  Teachers get wrapped up in their reality and feel personally attacked when that reality is challenged.

Looking at this reaction logically, it’s understandable.  Practices are personal to classroom teachers.  Almost without exception, we care deeply about what we’re doing and genuinely want to help children.  Challenging our decisions means that we’ve failed—-and in our profession, “failure” means we’ve let down children.

No wonder we resist first and ask questions later!

The solution is relatively simple:  Conversations need to start and end with an objective look at results.  The best change agents center their questions on practices instead of practitioners.  When we can separate ourselves from our practices and concentrate reflection on teaching rather than teachers, we’re more likely to produce the kinds of safe conversations necessary for transforming school cultures.

Now it’s your turn to reflect: If you downloaded Transforming School Culture or stopped by our conversation this week, what lessons are you walking away with?  What ideas resonated with you?  What do you still need to wrestle with?

Most importantly, what do you plan to do TODAY to drive change in your building or in your community?  We can’t just walk away from this conversation and return to business as usual, can we?

On a side note:  While commenting is now closed, know that our conversation will be available for viewing until the end of time!  You can share the link—-found here—-with anyone at any time who you think needs to learn a bit more about overcoming staff division.