I’ve been job hunting for several months (thank you, layoffs). As I’m eyeing job postings and prepping for interviews, I’ve been interested in how organizations describe their culture.
Not one of them leads with “hot mess," "toxic swamp of despair" or “dumpster fire,” though many orgs are.
Over the years and especially during my time as a consultant, I’ve seen a lot. The CEO who announced “Aaaaaaand… youshouldknowlayoffsarecoming” in the middle of a wonderful holiday party at the Birchmere. (Yassss she did. I like to think it inspired the lyric “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”) I’ve seen management so loathe to make hard, emotional decisions that the org literally ran out of money. I’ve counseled staff members who’ve given up sharing their ideas because they’re never acknowledged or adopted.
Culture does eat strategy for breakfast. I love a good strategic plan and I’ve written several, but strategy is just a bunch of words on paper without good people to bring it to life.
Strategic plans usually include “mission,” “vision” and “values.” Organizational culture should be a tangible embodiment of those values.
Companies with healthy culture develop better strategies, because employees contribute their expertise to sharpen them.
Companies with healthy culture execute on strategy more effectively, because employees feel invested in the work and have the support they need to be successful.
Where’s the best place you’ve ever worked? How would you describe its culture?
For me, it’s been those places where I have been:
Recognized for my hard work
Comfortable admitting what I don’t know (yet), asking for help, and getting it
Invited into shared problem solving and decision making
Respected as a professional with valuable knowledge and experiences to share
Encouraged to keep learning and to try new things
Expected to be responsible for getting core things done well, and held accountable when they’re not
Seen as a whole person (with a life outside of work), known, and cared about by my colleagues
Part of a community of people who genuinely enjoy each other.
School divisions, schools, and classrooms have cultures, too, just like any other organization. As APS rolls up its sleeves to start on a new strategic plan, I believe that it’s our culture, more than any particular verbiage we craft, that will propel us to a great future.
Here are some examples I really admire from other schools and districts I’ve visited.
Time to collaborate at P.S. 172, Brooklyn, NY:
At P.S. 172 staff members have regular, protected time to collaborate and make decisions about the curriculum and their own professional learning. The NYC Department of Education granted the school a waiver so that it could schedule a 90-minute block of professional learning time at the start of each school day, one day per grade level. (School leaders developed a master schedule that places students in specials while their classroom teachers are engaged in these professional learning sessions.)
Grade-level teams work with instructional coaches to identify topics and formats for their own professional learning; Rachel, one of the school’s special education teachers, shared, “There is great respect here for the amount of time teachers need to spend together. We respect each other as colleagues and are able to ask for what we need.”
Teams use separate dedicated time to co-create the school’s curriculum and revise it annually to meet student needs. “It’s a shared document that everyone is responsible for,” said Rachel. “If something isn’t working, there’s not one person who feels their work is being criticized. It was made by all of us.”
Student decision making at Parker Charter Essential School, Devens, MA:
At Parker, students are surveyed as part of mid-year and end-of-year teacher evaluations, and a student-led Community Congress has a voice in changing school policies, providing feedback on the school’s annual budget allocations, and weighing in on other administrative issues. Additionally, the student-led Justice Committee plays a key role in resolving conflicts, providing mediation, and developing restorative plans after infractions.
The corollary to shared decision making is shared responsibility and accountability. Parker principal Todd Sumner told us, “There’s an expectation that adults in school share a commitment to the entire school. When we orient new staff, we share that it means you can’t walk by stuff… if I walk by I can’t say ‘They’re not my problem because they’re not my students.’ You need to step toward the issue, not away from it. Because this piece is consistent over time, the longer the students are here, the more they own it. The juniors and seniors really are the ones doing most of the tone-setting. They will be as quick as any adult to say, ‘This doesn’t look right.’”
Valuing teacher expertise at Harvest Collegiate High School, New York, NY:
At Harvest Collegiate, teachers can get release time to pursue career development opportunities and take graduate classes towards advanced degrees. Many teachers take on hybrid roles within the school, including professional learning community leaders, health and wellness leaders and curriculum developers.
At Harvest, all teacher desks are housed together in one big workroom so that teachers can troubleshoot issues and share ideas. This workroom is often where individual teachers create new courses and solicit feedback on those course ideas from their colleagues; teachers at the school develop courses that reflect their passions and expertise as well as interests voiced by their students.
Faculty member Steve Lazar noted, “We ask teachers, ‘What's the most successful unit you've ever taught?’ and then we say, ‘Great, make that a course. Turn that into a semester class.’ Because we're building on teachers’ strengths and past experiences, that leads to teachers doing things that work for students.”
Interdisciplinary inquiry and innovation at Vancouver iTech, Vancouver, WA:
Teachers across several subject areas teamed up to try out an interdisciplinary experience for high school students at Vancouver iTech. First, the students studied The Omnivore's Dilemma as a collaborative biology, health and physical education unit. They tracked their eating and sleeping habits and interviewed their parents on the factors that influence healthy behaviors.
In their media class, students then created short films about food for a festival they planned. The inspiration for each film was a nutritional improvement each student identified for themselves. Students filled a variety of roles at the festival according to their interests.
School principal Darby Meade observed, “Our school’s guiding principles are around innovation, inspiring students to create, and really imagining what it is that we can be. We don’t necessarily know what is going to be out there in ten or fifteen years… we believe in problem solving and teaching kids to fail. The amount of information is continuing to increase--if we just cover the curriculum, we’re getting further and further behind.”
Relevant professional learning at Fall Creek Middle School, Fall Creek, WI:
Sixth grade teacher Toby Jacobson and his colleague David Ross received encouragement from Brad LaPoint, their principal, to make project-based learning the focus of their professional learning through a district-wide system that uses teachers’ individual goal-setting to drive professional learning. Other teachers identified professional learning goals related to growth mindset, reading strategies, special education connection with families, and more; the program culminates in a “Goal Day” street fair where teachers share what they’ve learned. Jacobson reflected, “This culture really took off in the last three years. In the first couple years, there was more focus from the staff on just getting through the process. Now it’s more like people take it on themselves, asking ‘How am I going to get better this year?’”
“How am I going to get better this year?” and its partner “How are we going to get better this year?” are the right questions to be asking. In any org, the response should begin with culture—the one we have, and the one we want to create. If we don’t get that right, it’s quite likely our strategies will amount to little more than the crumbs left on a breakfast plate.
Management expert Peter Drucker is credited with the claim “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”