The importance of culture cannot be overstated. Over the years, I have described it as the most important and heaviest lift for our school systems today. In many ways, culture is either the gas pedal or the brakes of any initiative.
My favorite understanding of culture is that it is the actions that we repeat frequently and consistently over time. I always land on this understanding of culture because it brings culture out of the realm of theory and concept, and makes it tangible and actionable. Very simply, culture is the set of things that we do every day.
Culture is always important for any organization but it is most important when things are hard. This year, we thought our most challenging phase of the pandemic was behind us, and we quickly found ourselves in even more difficult and delicate challenges. Culture is the glue that holds an organization together when challenges are faced, when turmoil arises, when it seems that we are weathering blow after blow.
For today’s school leaders, the most important investment that you can make is an investment in the culture of your organization. Here are three tangible things that you can always do:
- Stop, take stock, & acknowledge - It may seem that the world is on the verge of collapsing every day in our schools. We are facing teacher shortages, low staff morale, student engagement challenges, and a litany of other crises. We are also, however, seeing people deeply committed to holding things together, stepping up to asks and requests unheard of in previous years, coming to work every morning, and doing their best to show up for our students. Stop and take stock of the amazing community, people, and assets around your school community. Find and acknowledge the bright lights in the custodial staff, the parent organizations, the teachers, and administrator teams. Begin with an asset-based mentality and identify where your culture is alive and thriving.
- Determine your most critical culture focus - At LINC, we often share that you don’t need to try to boil the ocean when it comes to shifting culture. There are so many things that you will want to work on, so what is the culture element that you really want to strengthen? Maybe it is improving collaboration, building trust, increasing risk-taking, or strengthening agency. Work with members of your leadership team and school community to collectively determine a culture element you believe to be important for your community now. Once you determine your area of focus, share your intentions with your community and why this culture element is so important.
- Take small actions frequently - Culture is a big rock made up of tiny pebbles. We worked with a school who determined that their focus area was risk-taking. So at each staff meeting, they would ask a member of the teacher team to share a new practice they tried in the classroom that did not go as planned. We call this the Golden Plunger. It is a way to celebrate the act of trying new things and not getting lost in the outcome or result. After a few meetings, more and more teachers were willing to try and share new practices in their classrooms. It is taking small actions frequently that leads to greater shifts in culture.
The LINC Culture Kit is a resource we developed to help school leaders implement culture moves. We invite you to lean into the small, tangible steps you can take to support culture building in your school. It is the best investment that any leader can make during challenging times.