9 Reasons Culture Trumps Strategy

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

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This last summer one of the most profound speakers I have ever heard was Dr. Bill Daggett from the International Center for Leadership in Education. His words of "Culture Trumps Strategy" have given me a resurgence and confidence into education and changed what I have since implemented with my staff. It seems we spend so much time with the latest fad, program, or administrative directive, but when it comes down to the brass tacks, it's how we treat people that has the most impact on a student achievement. In my short 20 years of professional development, and I mean hundreds of offerings, I have found no greater educational impact than the trust and positive relationships we create among teachers, teachers with families, and most importantly, teachers create with students in their classrooms. Here are nine reasons I believe culture trumps strategy.

PU #132 - The Top 1% of Highest Preforming Schools: Culture in Common

Dr. Bill Daggett studied the top 1% performing schools in America. He found several patterns, but nothing as strong as the culture within these schools. What he didn't find were schools that spent time only on instructional strategies and had a negative or nonexistent culture. The top 1% of these high achieving schools had a school culture that was noticeable when you walked in; you knew right away you were in a school with a strong culture based on respectful relationships. If we know this, why don't more schools spend time on developing the culture? I understand it takes a great leader to decide to do this, but is seems so much easier than spending all the time, money, and resources with teaching strategies, technological devices, and instructional philosophies. One easy area to start would be to track what your administrator spends the most time on. Do they spend more time on activities that expand the culture or are they bogged down in paperwork, mundane tasks, or sitting at their desk all day dealing with behaviors?

PU #133 - How Does the Administrator Treat Staff

Speaking of leaders, do administrators spend time growing their staff, modeling respectful relationships, and expecting that from everyone? I would hope everyone! Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind has left a sour taste in our mouth towards the word "accountability." If accountability is used correctly, administrators can expect employees to treat all stakeholders with respect in order to create trusting relationships….and nothing less! Employees should look first to their administrator for the sense of culture…how does he or she treat the employees? We must be cognizant that principals are the primary thermometer or dipstick for culture implementation. One easy area for a principal to start tracking is the number of contacts with employees per day…not so much the time, but the fact that you are connecting with as many employees as you can in quality conversations. One strategy is the morning walk-through with staff members before school starts. Check on them, ask them how they are doing, and how you can support them. These one minute conversations lead to something so much bigger…a culture that cares!

PU #134 - How Do Staff Treat Other Staff

Culture can be seen quickly when you watch staff members interacting with each other. Tracking this may sound like a waste of time, but how they treat each other tells you a lot in how they will treat students. Do they constantly complain, argue, or even ignore other employees? I hope not! They should be having fun with each other, joking, asking about their lives, their families, and more. The more they know about each other, the more they can support each other through this journey of educating youth! Again, the administrator needs to model this first, inspire others to seek out friendships, create opportunities to share, as well as providing other whole staff experiences.

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PU #135 - How Do Staff Treat Other Staff

This may be the most difficult aspect of culture for teachers to ascertain, but it is how the staff connects with the community. How does the staff create a culture that inspires community members to take part? How can you get community and business partnerships into your school? Staff members have to create opportunities for students to get out of the school and into the community. Whether students share their learning, or are just on a field trip, we must encourage students to connect with our local community members and businesses. This also works in the opposite direction, we must encourage our community to volunteer, attend, and not just participate, but be engaged in our school. Activities such as volunteers helping prepare before an assembly, a Back to School Night, or even a PTA event helps make the work load manageable, but also lets us "go bigger" with the events. For example, in our school we have Parent / Teacher Conferences in the fall. That alone can be enough. BUT, we have community partners that come in and help us with a clothing drive, a clothing giveaway, and free daycare for students while parents are in with teachers, run activities for those students, and even provide a snack. In addition, the PTA runs a book fair, and several organizations set up informational booths (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, etc…). Parent / Teacher Conference night turns into a fall super-event for our learning community. When events such as this get momentum, the community starts talking, and more people want to help and support our schools. We try to not turn anyone away when it comes to volunteering!

PU #136 - How Does Staff Treat Families

A strong three-legged stool in education involves the student, the teacher, and the family. A positive culture starts with this foundational belief. We may only be with the student 1,080 hours, but families are with the student all the rest of the time, ~7,680 hours. Families are the first teacher and most prominent teacher in this three-legged stool analogy. Engaging families, not just asking them to participate, is key. We need to engage with parents and ask them what we can do to support them and their students at home. Also, we need to let parents know how they can support students at school. This two-way communication is imperative; the more support we can get from families the more successful we will be as teachers and students will be with achievement. One idea of communication that has changed the family engagement level is the Remind app. Teachers get families signed up and they can receive information instantaneously on their smart phones. Families seem to read text messages more frequently and better than our school's web site, or even other social media. Culture building can begin there!

PU #137 - How Does the Staff Treat Students

In a 10-minute walk through on any campus you can see staff members engaged in conversations with students. You can take your school's temperature in that 10 minutes. Are the conversations done in a respectful manner, are kids responding with respect, and does the interaction seem positive? You can give a directive with positive language, a smile on your face, and in a respectful tone. A pet peeve of mine is when a staff member goes negative…they use an alarming tone with students and seem angry. I always ask, do you want the behavior changed? If so, you need to flip your mindset to the positive, and change your tone for the best results.

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PU #138 - Relationship Building: Comes Down to Trust

Building trust is thrown around so much in education I feel like it is never defined with specific examples on how to build it. Trust is the underlying backbone of a positive culture. Do staff members trust that the decisions being made by administration are best for kids? Do parents trust the teachers with the educational decisions based on what's best for their son or daughter? When staff or parents tell you, "I trust that what you are doing is correct for my student" then you know trust is being built. Shared decision making, continued communication, and follow through are three keys in building and keeping trusting relationships. One thing you can try is using a school-wide parent survey. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions that get down to any trust issues. Then do something about it!

PU #139 - Make Sure to Have Fun

When culture is the first priority, it can be FUN! Interactions between all stakeholders are filled with joking, laughs, and learning experiences that are actually FUN! Students like coming to school every day. Staff members like coming to school and do anything to make sure they don't miss it. They may get covered for a doctor's appointment for 60 minutes and come back to school. This type of commitment is great for kids as we have more time to make learning fun!

PU #140 - Positive Learning Environment

Culture starts with a positive learning environment. What does a positive learning environment look like? The eight aspects above give you a pretty good idea on how to build it. When all pistons are firing, your school can transform into a place where everyone wants to be. You can visibly see "regency" among your stakeholders. With regency everyone is working hard to improve: students achieving more, teachers instructing more effectively, and the administration inspiring more people.

Many administrators may not want to hear this, but making culture the first priority should be what we are all working on! The top 1% of schools and Dr. Bill Daggett can't be wrong. The ongoing mantra in our schools should be stated everywhere, "You are part of this culture, make it a place where you want to work and learn!"

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Jon Konen