School culture matters by Dennis Sparks

School culture matters

by Dennis Sparks

Dennis

School culture is an incredibly powerful but often invisible force that shapes a school community’s work. It is more powerful than new ideas and innovative practices.

Administrators and teacher leaders who ignore school culture or underestimate its influence will almost certainly fail in improving teaching and learning for all students.

While school culture may be largely invisible, some of its qualities can be discerned by observers who are attuned to them.

In an earlier post I suggest 9 symptoms of a problematic school culture.

Among the most common of those symptoms are that:

• the most honest conversations happen in parking lots rather than meeting rooms,

• in just a few years new teachers begin to sound and act like veterans who are resigned to the status quo and deeply entrenched in their ways, and

• educators feel more professionally connected to followers on social media they have never personally met than to grade-level, department, or PLC colleagues with whom they share students and common purposes.

In another post that focused on desirable cultural shifts I wrote:

“[N]ew cultures [cannot] be created by leaders acting alone. Indeed, a primary characteristic of high-performing cultures is that leadership is distributed throughout the school community. That means that new, more effective cultures are co-created by leaders and community members, especially teachers.

In that post I identified several shifts that occur when school cultures move in a positive direction:

• confusion and incoherence regarding important goals, ideas, and practices to clarity and coherence;

• leadership centered on a single individual to leadership developed and distributed throughout the school community;

• resignation and powerlessness to hopefulness and collective sense of efficacy;

• low levels of trust to high levels of trust;

• a focus on deficits, negativity, and complaint to strengths, positivity, and appreciation;

• professional isolation and dependence on outside authority to results-oriented experimentation founded in teamwork and community;

• accountability to external authorities to accountability to one another for achieving important goals; and

• episodic, superficial professional development to team-based learning embedded in the planning, assessment, and continuous improvement of teaching and learningfor the benefit of all students.

I encourage you to read and study these essays and to have candid conversations with colleagues about the culture of your school or school system and to determine what can be done with urgency to strengthen it.

You can read more about school culture here.

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