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Aurora Institute

Lens 4: Culture

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Bill Zima

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 3.33.40 PMIn earlier posts, I described a framework of leadership I believe is needed if the work of converting to a student-centered, proficiency-based system of learning is to be successful. I base my thinking on my own experiences and the tales of leaders gone before. The framework is built around four lenses. They are building a leadership team, action planning (both described in earlier posts), meeting facilitation, and culture. This final post looks to further describe the lens of culture.

Culture. It is not part of the game. It is the game. Does your building believe all students can learn? Do the educators have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset? Do they believe they have a say in how the school operates? What are those measurable values and truths your school emulates?  Dr. Henry Cloud in his book “Boundaries for Leaders makes it very clear, “Culture is established through what the leader creates and what the leader allows.” I have too often listened to school administrators find every reason to explain away their poor culture. They blame the Department of Education, the parents, Central Office and even the students. I too blamed the external environment until I realized that the culture of my school is the one thing I can impact directly. Once I understood that culture is the organizational values, what people believe and are willing to work for, I realized that I can affect what is happening for our students. By focusing on school culture, I can impact student achievement, graduation rates, and teacher effectiveness. This is why I assess culture early and often.

A leader must envision the culture he or she wants. This is easiest when entering as a new leader or just prior to undertaking major reforms, but it can be done at any time. To begin, ask yourself: What do I want an outsider or a new parent to say when describing the culture of the school? Examples of comments I listen for are that the expectations for students are clear, it is a great place for learning, teachers see mistakes as something to grow from and not an indication of ability, and that the adults and students are respectful. This vision will become the postcard destination, the perfect scenario. The leader should then determine the current culture by asking the staff, students, and parents. Analyzing the gap between the current and the envisioned will define the steps that need to be taken to create and then maintain the desired culture. Our postcard destination was to be the same for the adults as it was for the students. So:

  • Learner-centered: Just as we want our students to be in a learner-centered culture, so too must it be for our educators. We do this in my school by using processes and protocols that allow people to have a voice in how our school operates. We have established many feedback loops to constantly check in on how we are doing. Such processes as staff parking lots, surveys, and the always-open door.
  • Clear Expectations: Just as we want our students in a proficiency-based system where the expectations are clear and learning is transparent, so too must we be clear with our teachers regarding effective instruction. In my school, we studied Marzanos Art and Science of Teaching together, and continue to use it to drive our conversations about effective teaching practices. The staff meets once a month with colleagues who are interested in the same component of effective instruction from the Art and Science of Teaching. They brainstorm strategies to answer the question, implement them over the next month and then return to discuss the effectiveness of the strategy using actual student work. Then they choose another strategy to implement over the next month. This led our school to create the Customized Classroom Facilitator Continuum. Teachers can now use this to self-assess and then create a goal to help them improve to the next level.
  • Continuous Feedback: Just as we want our students to be assessed regularly so they can receive feedback on how they are progressing toward a specific learning target, so too must leaders give and get continuous feedback. For our students, we do not believe assessment to be a single, end of unit event. We assess our students early and often to determine where they are in their learning and provide feedback to move them forward. Similarly, offering feedback to teachers is early and often. My visits to classrooms are not meant to be the single, evaluation visit. They are meant to determine how we are doing at creating the learning environments that support our vision. Every teacher in the building knows I will ask three questions of all students:
    • What is your learning target?
    • How do you know if you have hit your target?
    • What is next?

I give teachers feedback to help them progress on our Continuum.

  • Relationships: Just as we want a culture built on positive relationships with our students, so too with the adults. Building a positive relationship among adults requires two things: 1) Being interested in who they are outside of school and 2) Sharing a goal to do our best for our students. In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer argue that it is progress in meaningful work that increases inner work life and translates to a happier overall life. What could be more meaningful than the work of creating the next generation of learners and thinkers? Progress is made clear through the use of action plans which help script the critical moves towards your vision. The positive relationship is based on a culture of wanting everyone to succeed.

While it may be easier to point a finger at those outside the school poisoning their waters, leaders don’t let the external environment get in the way. They take deliberate actions to build and create the culture they want, using every opportunity and every tool to constantly reinforce the desired culture. A leader never accepts less on the way to that postcard destination of the desired school culture.