School & District Management Opinion

Leaders Must Understand the Groundwater That Is School Culture

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 07, 2016 5 min read
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The health of a school’s culture has impact on the manner in which each person experiences that school. It may well determine school memories and ripple out over a lifetime. Haven’t we known those graduates who can’t wait for class reunions as well as those who never want to attend one? Culture is reflected in the infrastructure but it resides in the human beings and their interactions. It lives in big issues and in small ones, in policies and in attitudes. Some will find the culture open and accepting, understanding and respectful, others may not. It can be found in rules and expectations and hopefully results in an environment that is safe, accepting, empathetic, compassionate, focused on learning and success for students and adults alike.

Rules and Behaviors
There are, of course, rules to be enforced. Report to work on time. Fill out all required paperwork. Meet all deadlines. Teach the assigned curriculum. But, there are other behaviors that are as important for successful schools. These are the behaviors that contribute to the health of the school culture, not the behaviors that are easily codified, but are needed in order for schools to flourish. The difficulty lies in identifying these behaviors. Leaders model these behaviors and encourage all to keep them at the heart of their actions. They will encourage those who miss the mark, even if only from time to time, to do better.

An example of the two different behaviors can be found in the Ten Commandments. Some are really clear. Thou shalt not kill, steal, or commit adultery. They are visible acts. Clear rules. Do not do them. Period. But there are other Commandments, the “shall not covet” ones, that are less visible, and live within each person’s heart. How can leaders know what is in the hearts and minds of faculty and staff? And, moreover, is it our business to know?

In School Culture Rewired, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker define norms as the “unwritten rules that maintain coherence within a group, and they often trump the written rules” (p. 35). So perhaps, leaders, both new ones and those with history in a school, must begin careful watching of the norms as they play out. Be observers of culture so that one knows what it is before one tries to change it.

The tendencies within schools to be insular complicate this work. We talk about school communities and the connection to communities but often schools, like the subjects taught within them, remain separate and apart. Most schools are closed societies, with stories unique to themselves. Those stories inform and sustain the norms. They are passed along to new faculty and to new leaders. They are powerful determiners of behaviors.

How can a leader help? Mandates and policies will challenge personal values. They can cause faculty and staff to act in opposition to personal beliefs. A leader may be asking a devout believer in heterosexuality as a religious principle to accept a gay or transgender child without judgement? A leader may expect someone with a mentally disabled sibling who was institutionalized at a young age and who believes it was ‘for the best’ to accept inclusion of similar students in their classroom? Impossible? No. Necessary.

Craig E. Johnson in Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership offers some advice. We have turned them into questions that can guide a leader as (s)he explores the culture beneath the surface to really understand what motivates and guides the school. Guiding questions can be, Do I, as the leader:

  • serve as an ethics officer for your organization, exercising influence by the example you set and making sure that ethical messages aren’t drowned out by messages about tasks?
  • foster humility?
  • make decisions with self-interest or for the good of the organization as a whole?
  • create perceptions of organizational justice by distributing resources fairly, following equitable processes, and treating others with dignity and respect?
  • act in a trustworthy manner and encourage others to do the same?
  • clearly communicate values and commitments?
  • remain aware of the difference between compliance and integrity?
  • help others to recognize obligations to the community?
  • identify and communicate the organization’s values? (pp. 352-353).

Leaders in schools, principals specifically, lean into being ‘lead learners’ and ‘curriculum leaders’. Both are essential things to be. But it is as important, if not more so, to first be an ethical leader who is invested in being the ‘lead ethical model’. In the US, we are individualists. We define ourselves as ‘originals’. We value our uniqueness and assert our independence. Being part of an organization is not particularly natural to us. So, leading an organization whose values have to be ‘for the good of ALL the children’ presents a role for the leader that challenges the individualism of the adults making up the organization.

In the End
School culture behaves like the groundwater of an organization.

Groundwater is a part of the water cycle. Some part of the precipitation that lands on the ground surface infiltrates into the subsurface. The part that continues downward through the soil until it reaches rock material that is saturated is groundwater recharge. Water in the saturated groundwater system moves slowly and may eventually discharge into streams, lakes, and oceans.

With the demand for making schools safe places for risk taking, trial and error, for shifting decades’ old practices, for leaving old patterns behind and creating new ones, a realization is imperative. For any level of success, the culture of the school/district merits as much attention as the changes people are being asked to make. The challenges that are being faced now, and those that will come in the future, are best met when the culture of the school is one that is being led with cultural openness, awareness, and knowledge. A healthy organizational culture will help the right decisions to be made and all will benefit.

Johnson, C.E. (2015). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications
Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD

Our previous posts on School Culture can be found by searching EdWeek for “School Culture Leadership360"

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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.