School & District Management Opinion

Want Culture to Support Change? 5 Questions to Help Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 24, 2016 5 min read
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Educators have access to extraordinary resources. Once we were limited to an annual conference, a local or regional professional meeting, a book or a journal. Now, ideas about new programs and methods and strategies can pile up in one’s inbox and on one’s desk. Connectivity with other educators and experts is extensive. That is both the good and the bad news.

It is all too easy to discover a quick solution that might answer a nagging problem. Yet, the culture of the school within which all of these things exist seems to remain inflexibly strong. So, as we and so many others have questioned, “How much can be changed within the existing system?” “When something new enters for the sake of improvement, what is to be let go?” “Does everyone know and agree that the new thing is in the service of a shared value, objective, and/or goal?” And, most importantly... “Why are we doing this?” Yet, it reminds us of the work of Edgar Schein, the cultural theorist and author of Organizational Culture and Leadership. In that book, he asserts that the great and powerful unknown within organizations is culture. It is the source of resistance to change and causes the undoing of many leadership initiatives if not attended. Culture, according to Schein, exists at three levels. The most visible one is artifacts, beneath it are espoused values evidenced in rules and policies but below and fundamental to all are the basic shared assumptions. These are the least visible and if they are disturbed or challenged anxiety is released in the organization. Understanding this level of culture is essential for leaders to be successful as change agents. It speaks to wisdom and to inclusion

It Takes a Village
The beauty of the accessibility of information shared 24 hours a day 7 days a week, is that no matter where we are and no matter the time of day or night, we can learn something. New books offering new ideas are also published often, and some can be ordered and delivered in one day and others can be downloaded on demand. Current research is only a click or two away. The temptation to bring that new thinking forward to solve a problem or improve a situation is natural. But it is sometimes too seductive. Implementation exhaustion has resulted even from the best of intentions.

Distributed leadership and inclusive decision-making brings more people on board by sharing thinking and responsibility. With this in mind, the development of learning communities has been on the radar of many school leaders for years. Learning community expert Giselle Martin-Kniep posits:

Although the potential for learning communities to benefit students is of great merit, isolating it from the role that learning communities can play in supporting teachers as professionals and schools as organizational entities is at best naïve...Professional leaning communities can address and solve specific problems related to programs, policies, and practices. But they can also do and be much more. They offer the promise of new organizational cultures and contexts for the schools we have (Martin-Kniep p. 16).

New organizational cultures and contexts for schools...yes! But are we truly ready to begin examining our basic shared beliefs as a community, as an organization or will we satisfy ourselves by impacting the first two levels and not be too disruptive? There are leaders everywhere who see the landscape and have sights set on the horizon. They lead taking advantage of the plethora of resources. They exercise freedom in the knowledge that the way schools are organized and the context within which they operate can become different. But, they often do not enjoy long term success within districts.

What’s the Plan?
Constant connection to meaning and purpose is crucial. But, the environment in which that connection is made is not simply in the hands of a leader. It arises from a community, reflected by a board in most cases. It is formed daily by adult and child interactions. It is articulated and lived in a variety of ways. Policies are guided by it and decisions give it integrity. School culture is at the core of our environments.

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker write in their book “School Culture Rewired”

When we speak of changing schools into more collaborative organizations, what we really mean is that we want to change the nature of the relationships, or patterns of relating (p.51).

Once again, “changing the nature of relationships”, not a skill taught in certification programs for leaders and not a professional development opportunity selected by leaders or supported by most boards of education, is central to the work of leaders. Why? Because it is a reflection of the assumptions we make about others, their value and their motivation. We usually don’t talk about these. We talk about behaviors and wonder why we can’t get others to change theirs.

There are questions to be answered that can help formulate a leader’s plan to open a conversation that will allow movement toward the horizon in community with others. Each leader, each community, will have unique answers so the design for each becomes individual. Here are just some of those questions:

  1. Am I trusted? Do I trust others? Who?
  2. Is our school community truly welcoming to all students and parents?
  3. Do we want to be inclusive of teachers and staff or directive of them?
  4. What do we believe about learning? Has this belief been impacted by this century?
  5. Where do we stand on a continuum between risk and security or one between conformity and uniqueness?

Even if these questions can be given a quick yes or no, search more deeply and see if the evidence supports the response?

Any plan for systemic change must be bolstered by serious attention to the cultural shifts that might be needed simultaneously. Schools remain structured around the 20th century, which was rooted in routine and stability. We are living in a spontaneous century. We attempt to do our research, rely on data and discover facts while around us swirls the larger world where opinions matter most and opinion makers dominate. We become boundary navigators between two worlds: one within our walls, and the other outside of our walls. At the core of our action are the assumptions we make about people, our organization and the world. We are most effective when those are shared assumptions.


Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Martin-Kniep, G.O. (2008). Communities that Learn, Lead, and Last: Building and Sustaining Educational Expertise. San-Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Schein, E.H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration by iqoncept via 123rf

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.