School Culture: What’s In Your Organization?

I was walking down the corridor at my school and a colleague, who was following behind me, shouted out a funny comment about me “skulking around”. We laughed together and, as I headed off, I thought about how that interaction perked my spirits up. Later, I talked about the impact of that interaction with another colleague and how I appreciated our faculty’s irreverent/humorous culture. This colleague replied, “Well, like they say ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’!”

I had never heard this phrase before and found myself intrigued by the idea of organization culture and its importance. When I Googled the phrase, I discovered that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is not an education-related adage – it’s an organizational effectiveness idea, generally attributed to the famous management consultant Peter Drucker. Drilling down further, I found a host of sites that endeavored to explain the quote and how the focus on culture over strategy might help reshape an organization. For instance, a 2018 article in Forbes.com described culture as “the secret sauce that keeps employees motivated and clients happy” while Businessdictionary.com defined organizational culture as “shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time”. 

This is all well and good for the business world, but does organizational culture play a role in education?

Apparently, heck yeah! 

A 2009 study looked at the results of more than 24,000 students who had taken the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The researchers discovered that the schools with the highest test scores were those who had also scored the highest in terms of school culture.

Furthermore, an education journal article entitled The Effects Of School Culture And Climate On Student Achievement by  Angus J. MacNeil , Doris L. Prater & Steve Busch, presented evidence that a positive school culture is “fundamental to improved teacher morale and student achievement”. In addition, the article explained that “real and sustained” change in a school was achieved through “reculturing” the organization, rather than through “restructuring”. 

So, how does this reculturing work? A 2018 article on Concordia University-Portland’s education website entitled Wow-Factor Schools: 8 Ways to Build an Awesome School Culture listed a number of ways (eight in fact!) that a school could improve its culture. Here are some highlights from the list:

“Live your mission and vision”

Many organizations have grand mission and vision statements. They are often emblazoned across websites and hung on posters around the building. But, if these words are to have any impact, they need to be part of the organization’s DNA. My current school kicks ass in this department. Our mission of “a community of compassionate global citizens” is intentionally and deliberately brought to life in every classroom and in every subject. Compassion is highlighted in lesson plans from pre-K to 12 and we have compassion-themed extracurriculars bringing together faculty and students. In the second quarter of the year, for example, our third grade classes collaborated with other international school classes to create a single narrative book about the impact of climate change on sea levels – each class was responsible for different sections of the plot and for the accompanying artwork. Compassion appears in higher grades also –  my middle school Social Studies partners and I regularly brainstorm ways to build compassion into our lessons when co-planning. It’s an organization-wide commitment. 

“Foster a culture of resilience”

Everyone in the organization is a role model. So, to ensure students learn how to deal with challenges, every adult in the school needs to regularly reflect resilience. Did I just coin a new ‘three Rs’? We always add the term “yet!” when ever we hear a student proclaim something they don’t know how to do and we always try to reframe setbacks as informative and a first (of many) attempt at our goals. 

“Communicate well — and often”

One of the strongest contributors to culture is proactive, transparent, two-way communication. Proactive communication is essential because, if the organization doesn’t take the lead in sharing information, a communication vacuum will be created that will be filled with false statements or rumors. Transparency is essential for creating trust and two-way communication is necessary for developing understanding and buy-in from all the organization’s constituents. 

“Recognize the awesome“

The Concordia University-Portland article breaks recognition into two distinct factors: one for students and another for staff. But, essentially, they represent a single idea: if there are behaviors that contribute to the success and positivity of the organization, a surefire way to perpetuate them is to recognize those behaviors. At my school, our faculty meetings always begin with a public shout out to individuals who have done something noteworthy or have made some sort of positive contribution. It’s a great way to bring the “all for one and one for all” concept to life.      

Sold on the idea of culture? The next step might be to determine what kind of culture is best for your organization. Depends on what kind of organization you want. In my research, I found four main types of culture – each focused on distinct objectives:

  • Clan – focused on togetherness and nurturing, 
  • Adhocracy – focused on innovation, 
  • Market – focused on achievement and completing tasks, and 
  • Hierarchy – focused on efficiency and stability.   

A hierarchically centered school would aim to be a smooth-running machine, with well-developed mechanisms in place to handle all eventualities. A clan, on the other hand, would be collaborative and focused on consensus. The market culture seems a bit more business-centered – focused on results. However, one can see a market approach to education in terms of standardized test scores. The adhocracy culture is also business-related, reflecting entrepreneurial and technological breakthroughs. And yet, in education this model might manifest itself in a school focused around cutting edge technology and instructional practices.   

But, does culture really eat strategy for breakfast? Before you grab the maple syrup and butter, I just want to ensure that no one reads this and then decides to kick strategy to the curb. Strategy is important too. Cultural changes are, in fact, another kind of strategy. Culture and strategy are both necessary in a successful organization.

Culture doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, however. It’s tougher to measure. While strategic success can be precisely determined through the attainment of specific results or outcomes, culture depends on more qualitative data: survey responses, or anecdotal evidence. You might even have to hover around the water cooler all day, listening for any buzz. 

Measurable or not, you can’t ignore the power of culture. I’ll close with another culture quote (unattributable) that popped up often during my Googling: employees don’t quit bad organizations, they quit bad cultures. 

Ed X!

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