Book review by Sr. Geralyn Schmidt
Recently, I had a talk with an individual who has just graduated from college and has been unable to find a job in his field. In our conversation he told me that the work culture of his future place of employment is exceedingly important to him: he wants to practice his new profession in a setting that supports his creativity energy, challenges him to grow professionally, and also helps him become a better person. This conversation got me thinking about the importance of culture in the workplace.
According to Susan M. Heathfield, a Human Resource expert who writes for About.com, Culture “is the work environment that you supply for employees. Employees are motivated and most satisfied when their needs and values are consistent with those manifested in your workplace culture.” (Learn more.)
Heathfield’s definition was on my mind when a new book, Culture Re-Boot: Reinvigorating School Culture to Improve Student Outcomes, by Leslie S. Kaplan and William A. Owings came across my desk.
According to Kaplan and Owings, “school culture may be understood as a historically transmitted cognitive framework of shared but taken-for-granted assumptions, values, norms and actions – stable, long-term beliefs and practices about what organization members think is important. School culture defines a school’s persona. These assumptions, unwritten rules, and unspoken beliefs, shape how its members think and do their jobs.” (pg. 4)
In other words, culture shapes the school and the “way and how” it functions in a profound way. As the authors point out, “school culture creates a psychosocial environment that profoundly impacts teachers, administrators, and students.” (pg. 6) It defines a school’s identity, influences the attitudes and commitment of all stakeholders, and guides employees’ and students’ words and actions as well as values, beliefs, and social behaviors.
School culture needs to evolve with the times
Kaplan and Owings note that “school cultures develop in their unique ways because they once solved problems and continue to serve a useful purpose.” (pg. 7) But the authors go on to say: “Because society, people, objectives, and resources change over time…once useful solutions may no longer function in the organization’s best interests.” (Read Chapter 1 here.)
With this in mind, can we go into our 2013 school buildings, and compare what we see to the school of 40 or 50 years ago, and assume that many school cultures have not evolved to serve the needs of today’s learners? Much has been said regarding the need for change within our school systems to assist in the preparation of our future workforce. Kaplan and Owings agree with this sentiment, but what to do about it?
They suggest a cultural “re-boot” — a re-shaping of the culture with the needs of the times in mind. Among the most powerful factors that can re-boot school culture and improve student outcomes (pg. 31) are:
- providing cultural leadership,
- building ethical and trusting relationships,
- developing teachers’ professional capacity for instructional effectiveness & shared influence,
- establishing student-centered learning, and
- promoting parent-community ties that increase student success
Re-booting requires imaginative leadership
The reforming of culture is never easy since it requires many individuals not only to accept the process but also partake in its rebirth. Birth is never easy or painless. Kaplan and Owings state that “culture re-boot begins with principal leadership.” (pg. 42) In addition, “Principals’ attention to creating culture has positive outcomes for enhancing curriculum, instruction, professional development, and learning.”
“First, a school with a strong, shared sense of mission is more likely to initiate improvement efforts. Second, the culture’s collegiality norms are related to collaborative planning and effective decision making. Third, cultures actively dedicated to improvement are more apt to implement complex new instructional strategies that make positive differences in student learning. Lastly, schools improve best when their members recognize and celebrate small successes through shared ceremonies highlighting both individual and group contributions. In turn, all these fortify a school culture of continuous learning and improved outcomes.” (pg. 39)
In Chapter 2, “School Leadership as Culture Building,” Kaplan and Owings have created step by step processes that will assist the principal in not only defining culture but also in understanding how that culture supports the vision and mission of the school.
Leaders create culture by:
- Making coherence, seeing the “big picture”
- Helping teachers make sense of their work and see how it fits into the larger enterprise
- Working with others to define, strengthen, and articulate the organization’s enduring values, beliefs, and cultural themes that give the school its unique identity
- Using symbols of culture to create and reinforce the school’s values and deeper meaning to influence members’ thoughts, actions.
Leaders can create culture, in part, because they are coherence makers, the authors say. “They see the resources, the outcomes, and the people and forces that link them. From their perspectives and experiences dealing with the whole organization, principals are in positions to create the rationality and logic to help teachers make sense of their work and see how it fits into the larger enterprise.”
The importance of ethics and trust
Another aspect that Kaplan and Owings discuss is ethical behavior and the importance of trust. “Trust is acknowledged as a vital component of well-functioning organizations.” (pg. 77)
This relationship does not begin and end with the teachers, staff, parents and students; it extends to the wider community as well. “People in democratic societies expect their schools to be guided by moral principles such as justice, fair treatment, liberty, honesty, equity, and respect for individual differences. Likewise, schools are supposed to serve moral purposes, including nurturing young people’s human, social, and intellectual growth.” (pg 71)
Knowing that trust can be easily wounded by circumstances that are not willful, Kaplan and Owings have supplied procedures that will assist in creating, sustaining and building trust.
Building professional and community capacity
A third aspect that is important in changing culture is creating an environment that stimulates and supports professional capacity as well as a positive learning environment for students. “… Principals and teachers build a climate of trust, mutual respect, and collegiality in which they share a common purpose and collective responsibility for all students’ achievement.” (pg. 110)
This climate produces a safe haven in which “emotions are calm, the cognitive capacities (of students) can become more fully engaged” thus increasing learning outcomes. (pg 143) As with the other aspects of culture listed above, Kaplan and Owings have provided a pathway to create a supportive professional growth environment for teachers as well as a place for student centered learning. (Read Chapter 5 here.)
Finally, Kaplan and Owings turn to community and its reshaping. There are two aspects of community within a school culture: parents the neighborhood physically surrounds the school. Parental involvement in education always has had a positive influence on student achievement. But involvement in the wider community does as well. It can teach students that their influence and reach not just lies within the confines of the walls of the school. Students can indeed reach out and change the wider culture for the better. As with the other aspects of culture re-boot, Kaplan and Owings provide a framework that highlights parental involvement as well as outreach to the wider community.
A five-year plan of action
A school leader might well read Culture Re-Boot and think: “How is this going to happen? How am I to begin steering the “ship” down the path that all of this suggests?” In the final section, Kaplan and Owings offer a plan of action describing a five-year process that can school leaders and faculties reshape and re-boot school culture.
This book is geared for a seasoned principal who knows the gifts as well as the drawbacks associated with his or her faculty, staff and students and wishes to improve and renew culture. The authors don’t pretend it’s an easy task.
“Culture re-boot is a long-term, whole-school commitment. It takes many years of targeted study, frank professional conversations and collaboration, significant amounts of adult learning, and revised classroom practices for a school to be highly effective community of teachers who can advance each student’s learning in the classroom.” (pg. 234)
But it is so worth the work!