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Straight Up Conversation: How to Energize Stifling School Cultures

By Rick Hess — October 24, 2019 8 min read
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Keara Mascareñaz is a managing partner at Education Elements, where she’s helped about 1,000 school and district teams change their organizational culture. She began her career with Teach For America, teaching 3rd graders on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, before becoming a history museum educator in New York City. She’s also co-author of the book The New Team Habits. I recently talked with her about how to produce lasting change in school bureaucracies, and here’s what she said.

Rick Hess: Keara, you’ve said that your work focuses on changing organizational culture in schools. What exactly does that mean?

Keara Mascareñaz: As I’ve had the opportunity to work in schools as a teacher, and with schools as a partner for the past 15 years, I’ve noticed that most school systems have similar goals for students—success in K-12 and beyond. So what makes some teams more successful than others in making progress toward that goal? If you take two districts with similar demographics, assets, and needs, I believe culture is what makes the difference between making lasting progress or not. Culture is the air in a system. It’s made up of the things we do every day without even thinking about them. We believe there are five ingredients to a culture of innovation—one built on trust, inclusion, and curiosity, and that these are essential if a school system wants to achieve its goals. We think changing the habits of individual leaders and teams is the first step to making a cultural change at scale.

Rick: Where have you actually done this?

Keara: In the past seven years, I’ve been lucky to work with close to 1,000 schools and districts as part of Education Elements’ district partnerships. The specific projects range from school design to personalized-learning implementation, strategic planning, and leadership development.

Rick: Let’s cut to the chase: How do you scale a culture change to an entire organization?

Keara: Organizational change begins at the individual and team level. Individuals in positions of influence need to be invested in the change and modeling the behaviors they want to see spread. But it can’t stop there; one or two teams need to serve as testing grounds for culture change and as proof points that a shift is worth the effort. For example, we work with a district in New York that wanted to create an innovative, shared-leadership model. Instead of asking all schools to change, we started with a team of district leaders and worked with them to make shifts in the district cabinet. That way when principals went to their schools and said, “I’d like to rethink the way we run our staff meetings” or “how we structure roles at our school,” they could speak from the positive experiences they had making these changes to their own cabinet team.

Rick: What’s another example of where leadership coaching produced lasting change?

Keara: I’ve been leading executive coaching with a superintendent in the Midwest for the past year. He complained that his leadership team wasn’t fully participating in their sessions and that it was falling on him to share new ideas and drive innovation. We started tracking some of his behaviors in these sessions—how many questions did you ask, how often were you the first to speak, how many times did you say “yes” to others’ ideas. This helped us to begin to notice some patterns. This superintendent had grown up in this district—as a teacher, principal, and district leader—and was used to being valued for his great ideas. As a superintendent, he needed to shift and help others lead innovation, but he had not yet let go of behaviors that had served him so well for decades. His role as the “ideas guy” was actually diminishing the others on his leadership team. We used a quote from the book Multipliers as his mantra: “When I make a statement, others start responding to me instead of collaborating with each other.” We set up strategies for him to ensure he didn’t speak first, to ask at least five questions before making a statement, to use protocols to ensure all voices were heard. Once he made these changes, he created the space for others to drive innovation, and the result has been pretty dramatic in terms of the new ideas generated and the ownership shared across the team.

Rick: I’m not asking you to name names, but what is the biggest nightmare problem you’ve worked on? How did you solve it?

Keara: Haha, I would never consult and tell. I feel comfortable sharing this example because it’s happened in a few districts—we’ve been in more than a few meetings before with senior members of a school or district leadership team. We might ask a simple question like “Who owns the application that you’re putting out next week” or “Who owns the report to the school board tomorrow” only to find out there is a highly urgent task that no one owns. These moments are terrifying because they often reveal the intense silos that can exist even amongst teammates who share an office.

Rick: How do you measure whether your engagements are successful?

Keara: For me, the first, and most important, measure is qualitative. Since most of my work is with individual leaders and teams, I ask the question: What is different about this leader or this team as a result of our work together? Is there a greater sense of belonging, creativity, joy, and shared purpose? My team sometimes teases me because I often tend to trust my gut over metrics. I don’t want to downplay the importance of metrics, but I think in education we often invest too much in metrics that are far off, such as “Did student achievement improve this year,” instead of looking at qualitative data right in front of us—"Are people miserable in this meeting?” That said, I think leaders and teams need to validate that the changes they feel good about also need to feel good to others with quantitative checks. I encourage leaders to survey their teams and teams to survey the teachers and students they impact to drive reflection and future action.

Rick: It’s easy for any of us to just tell organizations they need to collaborate more. But how do you encourage them to do it seriously and well?

Keara: I agree—collaboration feels like a broad catchall. Instead of focusing broadly on collaboration, we start with the things we know every team is focused on: learning, meetings, and projects. For example, in our new book The New Team Habits, one of the learning habits we teach is “talk about mistakes.” This small habit, talking about mistakes, has a ripple effect of modeling vulnerability, which in turn creates psychological safety so that the team can learn and grow together. Ultimately, this improves trust and collaboration within the team and across other teams in the organization.

Rick: What’s an example of how you improved district- or school-level collaboration?

Keara: I worked with one school leadership team who had a lot of new team members but also a lot of veteran team members—so even though it wasn’t intentional, new team members were often feeling excluded by inside jokes and stories about past years. The team really wanted to create a culture where everyone felt essential. We went through an activity to identify the purpose of the school, the purpose of the school leadership team, how each person could contribute, and what help each person needed from the others. It took a few hours and some silly games, heartfelt tears, and vulnerable moments but it set the foundation for the team to work in a trusting, collaborative way for the rest of the year. And seeing the leadership team interact this way started to change the way grade-level teams interacted, and that impacted the way teachers helped students interact and include more voices. At the end of the year, it was really neat to hear staff and students talking about how the school felt like home and articulate ways that they had personally shaped something at the school.

Rick: What prompted you to move from museum education to this kind of work?

Keara: I’ve always been interested in thinking about how we can approach old challenges in new ways. In college, I studied subaltern history, inspired by two amazing professors, Diana Selig and Arash Khazeni, who showed me that you could read a historical text in many different ways and extract very different narratives depending on the perspective you took and questions you asked. I carried this lesson forward with me as a teacher, where I hosted family nights to try to reimagine the school building as a place of cultural celebration instead of culture loss, and as a museum educator, where I tried to rethink the role of a museum in our community and find ways to bring in a wider range of ages and cultures into the museum. When I met Education Elements’ founder Anthony Kim at a luncheon in 2012, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit—someone who was interested in helping schools think differently about what teaching and learning could look like.

Rick: A lot of times, change can seem overwhelming and intimidating. So if a leadership team is thinking about making a big change, what advice would you give them?

Keara: Start small. Part of why we wrote The New Team Habits is to offer small ways that leaders and teams can begin making a change. Often leaders get inspired and want to make a dramatic change—we worked with a district in Pennsylvania last year and shared some new practices for running meetings. The superintendent tried to bring in all five new practices to the next school board meeting, and it was a disaster—the change felt too fast and too big for the rest of the team. And the superintendent then felt like any change to the meeting would be impossible. We encouraged her to try again with a smaller shift—what if we just started with a check-in to get everyone present? If that goes well, we might try another new practice in a few meetings. We all know the adage, go slow to go fast, but I like to think it’s go small to go fast and far.

Rick: You’ve mentioned a few books in the course of the discussion. Now, I’m curious, what are three things you’d encourage readers to peruse if they want to understand more about this work?

Keara: I think Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black’s book The New School Rules offers a great mix of inspiration and practical application for leaders wanting to rethink the way work happens in their organization. Aaron Dignan’s new book Brave New Work zooms out and shares some really compelling reasons for why our ways of working need to change across all sectors. And Charles Duhiggs’ book The Power of Habit offers a great framework for thinking about how to change your individual habits, personally and professionally.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.