Beyond the Classroom: The Importance of Culture

Over the last couple of weeks I presented to a group of aspiring leaders and our own administrators about what governs education. The first part of the presentation is fairly straightforward. In education, we are primarily governed by legislation, collective agreements, board policy, administrative procedures and, for Catholic school divisions, Canon Law or diocesan rules. It is important for all educators (especially aspiring or current leaders) to have an understanding of these “governors,” as they provide context into the “hows” and “whys” from a system perspective. However, the silent “govenor,” and potentially the most powerful, is… CULTURE!!! To really address culture in education, you need far more than a 3-hour workshop or a short blog post. However, I hope my comments will create some fertile ground to allow for further discussions and more in-depth studies.

I began to really study the impact of culture when working with Wayne Hulley and Linda Dier, co-authors of “Harbors of Hope.” Their passion to create hope in our classrooms, our schools and our systems is essential for student success. Their work with effective schools research in Canada really set the stage for my own beliefs and in my direction toward building positive and impactful cultures.  I also learned that culture can be deep rooted, seemingly woven right into the very walls of the school or the structure of the system. And that… is why culture remains one of the most difficult changes in educational reform.

Although there are many types of cultures that must exist in a school, I want to concentrate on three that I have recommended to our leadership group and new administrators. These are not all encompassing, but I truly believe that their existence would create a powerful and positive learning environment for staff and students.

1. Culture of Professionalism: It is always bothersome when I hear the old adage, “Those who can, do – and those who can’t, teach!” There’s a little more salt rubbed into the wounds when I read of the high professional status held by teachers in Finland. It is disappointing that teachers have not garnered the professional status that I believe they deserve. Since everybody has gone through the school system, there tends to be an automatic belief that they understand the special skills that a teacher possesses to “teach”.  And quite frankly, if everybody could do it, we wouldn’t have teacher preparation programs lasting 4-6 years to learn the craft. Part of the definition of a profession is having specialized knowledge and, in truth, that is what teachers possess. Parents know their children better than anybody else, but good teachers know how to teach! Now, here’s where the professional piece lies: that distinct and specialized knowlege must be the most effective, most efficient and the latest proven research-based. It cannot be the same strategy that we employed 10 years ago unless it is the most effective, most efficient and the latest proven research-based! To take a page from Richard Dufour’s story of eye surgery, I’ll use my shoulder as an example. I have had numerous shoulder surgeries over a 30 year period for the same ailment. My first surgery required a scar of 3+ inches; my last surgery (8 years ago), required 3 small incisions. Both surgeries were effective but if I need another, which one am I going to choose? It is the same in education! Professionals are always looking for the newest methods. They don’t say, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!” or “I’ve only got two years left so why learn something new!” We deserve to be held in high esteem in society, but unfortunately we have to earn it by continuing to exude the highest degree of professional practice. A culture of professionalism in your school produces excitement for staff, parents and especially students.

2. Culture of Learning: We’ve come a long way from “I teach! You learn!” to “I teach so that you can learn!” A culture of learning speaks to me in two distinct ways. The first is that a culture of learning shifts the focus from the teacher to the student. In a culture of learning, teaching is aligned and re-aligned to meet the needs of the learner. Teachers utilize differentiated instruction and assessment strategies (note – specialized knowedge) to ensure success for the learner. The “stand and deliver” and “one size fits all” methods of the past are strictly teacher directed and don’t support a professional culture. Classrooms now (or they should be) learner directed. The second aspect of a culture of learning exists for educators themselves. Effective teachers are constant lifelong learners. Learning is about stretching yourself, risk taking and, as I’ve said many times before, failing forward. It is about being creative and innovative. It is about honing your craft which is all about learning. And in today’s world, the learning comes through various means – from colleagues, from administrators, from post-secondary institutions, from social media (a big plug for Twitter) and even from students. Schools today cannot be teaching facilities, but rather learning communities where everybody is involved in the learning process. That is a true culture of learning.

3. Culture of Collaboration: The one room school house of the past created an extremely isolated profession. Many teachers still continue to work on their own because it is how they were trained and it is far easier (in the short run). Collaboration is hard work and it can be messy. It begins with class visits, co-planning, sharing best practices but needs to move beyond those infantile stages. Disciplined collaboration requires teachers to free themselves from everything except the student learning at hand. And that means sharing your successes and your failures. It takes time and it takes patience but most of all it takes commitment. The children entering our schools today are vastly different from even 10 years ago and the pressures placed on education and specifically educators continues to grow. Without collaboration, we will never be able to create the environment  required to transform our education system.

Leaders are instrumental in setting the stage for a positive culture in their schools and systems but it is the staff that must take the responsibility. In this day and age when education is being over scrutinized, there are many things that we do not control. However, we all have the ability to influence culture. Culture is less about working conditions and much more about conditions of work. And when conditions of work are highly professional, focused on learning and collaboration based well… that’s just good for educators and for students.


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