Leading Cultural Change

By Jane Taubenfeld Cohen

[Many school leaders believe that school culture just happens by itself – and they are absolutely correct in that notion. You really don’t have to do anything for your school to form its own unique atmosphere. So why bother leading cultural change all? Because doing so can prevent the type of culture that you don’t want in your school from emerging. Deliberately and conscientiously envisioning your school’s ideal culture is the key to ensuring that your school is a place where students love to learn, teachers love to teach, and everyone loves to grow. In this blog post, YU School Partnership’s Director of Capacity Building, Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, shows you how to use the coming school year to make that happen.]

You are the leader and even if you are on vacation, the new school year is on your mind. While it is easy to get caught up with the tasks that need to be completed,

I hope you will spend some significant time thinking about what you want the school to feel like this school year. Some people call it tone, some people call it culture, some people call it avira. A positive culture in the school, one in which adults and students are guided by midot, where there is a playful yet structured atmosphere, where there is a drive for ongoing learning by all, where collaboration is valued and practiced, is achievable but does not happen by accident.

Ultimately, if you can imagine how you want it to feel, you can start to think about how to make it happen.

Here are some ideas to help you get started in changing your school’s culture for the better:

Work backwards

Imagine it is NEXT June, and the students and teachers come up to you and say, “This was the best school year ever!”. What happened to make that true? This is your imagination, so feel free to dream a little. Really put yourself in that place where you can think about all the factors that helped make this an incredible school year. Which of those factors were about culture?

Build your focus group

Who can help you think about this? You might find it helpful to do the same exercise with your leadership team and/or with your teachers. Do they have the same answers as you? Use the exercise as a springboard to try to define the culture you are working towards in your school.

Paint a detailed picture of the ideal culture for your school. Don’t be afraid of a little honesty

Have an open and transparent conversation about how far you are from the ideal. A critical part of that conversation needs to be your openness to hearing what people have to say without reacting defensively. That, in and of itself, will help to set the tone.

Design a plan that can be a school-wide initiative.

Choose an aspect of school culture to work towards and use backwards design to plan how to improve in that area. You might want to work on how adults talk to children or how to inspire students to keep the school clean or any one of hundreds of cultural components.

Make sure to define what success would look like and then transparently share your goals with as many stakeholders as you feel comfortable.

When I was a head of school, I would share with the teachers, the parents, the students, and the board. I felt like it kept me honest and it opened my thinking and my practice to the community.

Assess regularly and don’t worry if you have to go back to the drawing board.

Set milestones and write on your calendar that you will check in on progress at staff meetings. If you have chosen a path that is not working, analyze the failure and use it to learn from and try new strategies.

Build on your successes.

When you feel ready, tackle a new aspect of culture without abandoning what you have already achieved.

Don’t underestimate the power of cultural shifts!

This is the most important tip of all. Just working on culture and tone begins the improvement. The process itself heightens awareness and improves practice. I would openly share my own observations of the process of improvement (again, this is what was comfortable for me, and might not be as comfortable for you). I wanted transparency as part of the culture of the school and it was my job to model it. Building a culture is all about leading by example.

I’d love to hear more thoughts about this and to open the conversation. Please do so in the comment section below.

cross-posted at yuschoolpartnership.org