Monday, August 24, 2015

Building Strong School Cultures

By Heather Jung

“The students in Miss Smith’s class always have test scores that are lower than the other teachers at her grade level.  It has been this way for 3 years,” complains a teacher.  “I’ve collected data on this and showed it to the principal, but he doesn’t do anything.  Our students need better teachers than Miss Smith.  She needs to go to a cupcake school or just quit being a teacher all together.’’
This is a scene that is repeated in schools across the country.   There are teachers who are struggling. Many of them work with our neediest students.  These teachers may struggle with classroom management, implementing best practices, or building community. The reasons teachers struggle are as different as the teachers themselves.  This often causes frustration among other teachers on their team, administrators, and teacher leaders.  

The struggling teachers themselves often feel isolated and attacked by their peers and their administrators.  They have reason to feel this way.  Often, the very teacher leaders that are supposed to be helping them are, instead, trying to get rid of them.  Sometimes, they do leave the profession or transfer to other schools where it is easier for them to hide, but more often a struggling teacher stays. They get frustrated, no longer seek to improve, and find other frustrated teachers to commiserate with.   Successful teachers begin to close their doors and disengage with struggling teachers.  Together these  groups create fragmented cultures within the school.   These fragmented cultures are bad for both the teachers and their students.  What can we do to break these negative subcultures in our schools?
We need to start by analyzing the overall school culture and the subcultures contained within it.  Within a school, there are often many competing subcultures some of which are moving the larger culture of the school forward and some that are holding it back.  
Every teacher is capable of teaching.  Teachers care about their students and want to help them, but they need the support of a collaborative culture to do so.  Teacher leaders need to take a critical look at the various subcultures that already exist within the school. Leaders should identify the subcultures that “fit preferred behaviors better or have a more positive influence on a desired vision”(Gruenert & Whitaker, 2015) .  Leaders should empower these positive subculture and encourage them to recruit others.
It is important for teacher leaders to think long term.  The negative elements in a school’s culture are not going to be revolutionized in an instant.  This can be frustrating, especially when you see at-risk students in classrooms where they are not getting all that they need.  Building a good teacher takes a long time, and so does building a strong, collaborative school culture.
Teachers in a  collaborative school culture have strong relationships with peers and students. They are highly reflexive in their practice, and actively seek to improve their teaching.  Building strong and supportive peer relationships is the first step.  Teachers will only listen to teacher leaders that they trust and respect. If a trusting, collaborative relationship  can be built between the struggling teachers and influential teachers in a positive school culture, then the struggling teachers will be more likely to reflect and improve.  
A new school year is the best time to begin building new relationships between teachers.  As you begin this school year, look at your school culture with a critical eye.  Which subcultures needed to be empowered?  How can you  strengthen them?  How can you recruit others to join them?
Works Cited
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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