School Climate & Safety Opinion

Culture, Change, and the Hiring Process

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 06, 2016 5 min read
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Most of you have been part of a hiring process. You know the conversation about qualifications and attributes. Regardless of position, we search for the person with knowledge, with skills and with a set of personal attributes. Then interviews happen, and often conversations drift from those expressed qualifications to softer ones. We don’t mean the reference check input, we mean the conversations about who will “fit” here. We mean the moments when the best answered are dismissed as too scripted and comfort rises as a factor. There may be talk about spouses or families or age or sports, some of them bordering on the illegal. Often we want the culture changed but the push back from within the system will require perseverance and will challenge existing relationships. So, we look for someone we think can do it without too much disruption. And usually, we want someone who will stay to see it through....at least when we hire the person.

Schools are organization and organizations are living organisms. We have written before about how Schools Are Interdependent Organisms; Ecosystems in Which Leadership Matters. In it, we concluded:

The environment, the culture of a district, like all other things, is, at the end, the responsibility of every person. Teacher leaders, student leaders, parent leaders, community leaders, all can become part of the solution. The superintendent’s hand is on the door. How to invite them in, what will happen if they all come and how to balance chaos and order to keep a system moving forward are in her/his hands as the door opens.

What is the opportunity to which we are referring? Reflection often sounds like a soft skill but not if it allows us to confront a hard truth. Reflecting upon the school culture and each player’s role within it can reveal how widespread and how deep a cultural change is needed. Reflection offers an opportunity for revisiting beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and the written and unwritten rules that influence how the school/district operates. It was Peter Senge who wrote about the “unspeakables” in organizations and discussed how powerful they could be. A commitment to reflection at each hiring juncture offers the opportunity to ask each other and ourselves important questions. It calls for the inclusion of every stakeholder perspective. Listening without responding, evaluating, judging or rejecting is fundamental to the process. If this can be accomplished, and if it can be visible when a hiring process unfolds and the decision is ultimately made, then trustworthiness within a system grows. It may be especially challenging, and effective, if turnover has been high and if morale is low.

Input and Reconciliation
In a school system where a superintendent search is beginning, the community may be asked for input at the start. Faculty and staff are asked as well. And, with all this input and maybe even the guidance of consultants, the board generates the list of qualifications and determines the process that will be used. Hopefully, this can be accomplished without the search becoming a backlash against a departing superintendent or a desire for a clone of that person unless the reflective part has been honest and thorough. A shallow launch of the process may accomplish short-term intentions but will jeopardize the long-term effect sought.

This is an opportunity to reconcile competing motivations...a stellar learning environment demonstrated by student success with a responsible fiscal plan demonstrated by low tax rates and budgetary constraint, high teacher morale with an evaluation process representing the high standards of performance and continued growth for all and so on. Whether these differences become an either/or choice or whether they can be simultaneously pursued is the matter for the board and for the system leadership. But, bear these warnings in mind:

  • Saying one thing and doing another will always undermine trust and confidence in the decision makers.
  • When the professional community invests in trying to “read” the board and its interactions, something is wrong. Politics can replace purpose.
  • If the input sought is ultimately ignored, an explanation helps. To make an unpopular choice is sometimes required. But, to simply do so and ignore the input implies no one will notice, but, they always will.
  • Decision makers cannot get derailed by emotions or self-centeredness. Hiring choices are always about the students first or there will be an unleashing of a dynamic among adults that, overtime, will become destructive.
  • If a change in culture is part of the desired outcome, be prepared to hear complaints. Not everyone will be happy. Honest and frequent communication will sustain the movement forward.

“Fit” is Most Always a Concern.
Deciding about fit without questioning the prevailing climate and the overarching culture will result in bolstering the status quo. Perhaps, in your circumstances, bolstering is a good thing. But in many others, it is not. But to initiate change takes a strong board/ leadership relationship and acceptance that, for a while, there will be disruption and painful days.

Slow to Change
Schools are the preservationists in a world of rapid change. Most communities value some degree of its history and many would slow change if they could. But schools are also highly trusted places where parent s send their most precious little ones. Shouldn’t that reinforce our desire to lead change and teach and model how to both value the past if merited and release its hold as we move toward something new?

Change of Leadership & Change of Culture
Hiring a change agent without a deep and shared understanding of the organization we expect them to change shackles an individual before they even begin. We can do better. Hiring someone who will “fit” into current beliefs and practices, if those beliefs and practices are maintain the status quo, won’t support a changed culture. If looking for a new leader at any level, a new teacher, a new staff member, the time to re-examine culture and climate is now. What do we believe? How do we feel? What do we think we need? How would each group describe our direction? Is it a shared direction? And, remember the words of the Hebrew scholar Hillel when thinking about the change we know in our heads and hearts we need. “If not now, when?”

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.