When people talk about the “culture” of an organization, they are often referring to the unwritten norms and practices undertaken by the people of that organization—the assumptions that are held dear among the majority of its members, regardless of what is explicitly stated or promoted by leadership. In fact, I have been in organizations where the leadership is tracking in one direction but the culture of that organization is tracking in the opposite direction. It brings to mind a comment a friend once shared with me: “Culture eats leadership for breakfast.” For those of us in leadership, ouch!
I think we are all aware of this general concept about the culture of our schools; however, sometimes it’s hard for us to put a label on it. We only know that after spending time in a school, we usually get a sense of whether the culture feels positive or negative. After walking the halls while school is in session, visiting classrooms, and being outside during breaks, we may come away with a strong impression that the school is a place where students and staff are flourishing. Sadly, we may also have the opposite experience, or feel simply “meh” about our experience. So how do we assess this, and what can we do about it? My hope here is to offer some language around school culture that I have found to be helpful in my work as a teacher and administrator and in my consulting work and evaluations of other schools. I have drawn heavily from the work of educational theorist Andy Hargreaves, as well as from conversations with Lloyd Den Boer (King’s University) that took place while we worked together in school leadership. Some of the content in this article was previously published in a blog I wrote for Christian Schools International.
I have worked in three different Christian schools, evaluated and consulted for many others, and served on several not-for-profit boards. In that work I have had clear experiences of schools in which students and staff were both flourishing and contributing to the prosperity of those around them. I have also experienced the opposite. The thriving cultures I would like to call “authentically collegial communities.” They are places where staff work together to enhance student learning because they believe it is their calling individually and collectively. Staff work together not in spite of their differences but often because their differences create collective strength. The leaders in these schools facilitate and support authentic collaboration, highlighting needs and inspiring their teams forward in the direction of the school’s vision and mission that has taken root deeply in the hearts and minds of each person.
Hopefully this sounds pretty appealing to you, and you would love to see yourself in just such a place. However, we are not all there yet, and we are not going to get there by happenstance or even by providence. We are going to get there by intentionally setting goals and designing strategies to move in that specific direction. Along the way there are several detractors that need to be named and engaged, lest they pull us off course. Before we get to describing what an authentically collegial community looks like, we need to know and name what is not an authentically collegial culture. This will allow us to avoid pitfalls and to hold ourselves accountable.
Four Pitfalls to an Authentic Collegial Culture
One of the most common detractors to an authentic collegial community is the staff culture defined by high individualism. A graduate school colleague spoke of a time early in her career when she worked in a large school. She said she parked her car near her portable, walked to her portable, taught all day, ate lunch in her portable, and then walked back to her car at the end of the day and drove home. In five years she never had a conversation with her principal and only saw him at monthly staff meetings. And she wasn’t the exception to the rule. She was also a very good teacher. This story saddened me because I couldn’t help but wonder how much learning and growth she missed out on by working near her colleagues instead of with her colleagues, and then how her students missed out on the benefits of her learning and growth. I was disappointed that she hadn’t taken professional initiative to seek out colleagues, and I was disappointed that her administrative leadership hadn’t taken professional initiative to engage her in meaningful ways.
Large high schools can easily fall into a trap of balkanization as they tend to be organized around disciplines. I remember being in a school where the different departments felt a measure of animosity toward each other as they competed for limited resources to grow their programs. I have also seen this in elementary schools, wherein the intermediate department is quite separate from the primary department, which is quite separate from the learning assistance (or student support) department. Members of balkanized organizations, be they schools or otherwise, tend to refer to other departments as “they” rather than “us” and rarely participate in cross-disciplinary projects. Each group looks out for its own interests, which may not be directly aligned with the school’s mission, and which may not help other groups move toward mission fulfillment.
Congeniality may be the most insidious detractor of all because many falsely believe they are in collegial relationships. Congenial communities often emphasize the word community and work hard to protect a warm, fuzzy feeling of membership against anything that might harm that sentiment. I remember one school in which I felt pressure to be in the staff room at break to ensure I was part of the fun—and I felt that we put significant effort toward creating, fostering, and celebrating fun. Fun is good and valuable, but it’s not going to make meaningful strides toward mission fulfillment. I can think of a school that ran as a pseudo-church. The principal led many devotional periods, and staff members were strongly encouraged to know and support each other through difficult times and celebrate each other’s personal successes. Dialogue about pedagogy and instruction was rare, and staff members were valued based upon their participation in the staff community. Candid conversations about best practices were almost nonexistent. One member of this school called it “staffocentric.” Don’t get me wrong—knowing, supporting, and loving each other are all part of living into our calling to foster great learning for our students, but they are not the end goal.
Contrived collegiality is most commonly referred to simply as “collegiality” by the school leaders. Contrived collegiality is forced collegiality, wherein faculty and staff work on tasks set by their leaders, in groups set by their leaders, at times set by their leaders. There is little initiative by members to enhance student learning, and professional vulnerability is not part of the culture. The strongest example of this for me is a school that aggressively promotes itself around its teaching practices and requires its teachers to engage these specific practices. However, upon spending time in the school, it becomes apparent that many of the teachers, when nobody is looking, go on about their pedagogical business as usual. Often when the leadership changes, the advancements made tend to regress, as staff and faculty have not owned the hopes and dreams for student learning and therefore those hopes and dreams have not become embedded in the school culture. Authentically collaborating on improved student learning has not become normative behavior.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, as I am sure there are other detractors to authentic collegiality. These are simply the ones that rose to the surface as I read about and reflected on school cultures. Also know that it is quite common to have overlapping pitfalls in one school culture—schools where hyper individuals work solo within balkanized groups doing their own small group things while another group is working hard to make the place fun in the context of administrators who are pronouncing changes from on high on a regular basis. Not only is the former a long, convoluted sentence, it’s also an exceptionally challenging place for a new teacher to navigate. Where do you see yourself in this? Where do you see your school?
Fostering Authentic Collegial Culture
How do we move toward fostering a culture of authentic collegiality? The first step is to name the pitfalls above. As teachers, we need to own where we are at. We need to reflect on what we default to and recognize that, while it may be comfortable for us, while it may fit our personality needs (Enneagram, Birkman, Meyers-Briggs, etc.), it does not serve the common good of moving our schools toward a culture that fosters mutual flourishing.
Hargreaves, Andy. 1994. Changing Teachers, Changing Times: Teachers’ Work and Culture in the Postmodern Age. Teachers College Press.