School Relationships: Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast?

Is culture really more important than strategy to an organisation? Peter Drucker’s oft-quoted appreciation for the importance of culture is rooted in his strong belief in community. But surely a company that places greater value on culture over strategic planning is doomed to failure? I don’t think so. In fact, when it comes to schools, I think culture devours everything it encounters.

While places of learning need to be strategic, nothing is more important than school culture, what Michael Fullan refers to as “the guiding beliefs and expectations evident in the way a school operates”. Culture is all about people. Therefore it follows that the single most important thing a great school needs is great teachers.

Quite simply, I define great teachers as individuals who are intellectually bright, trained, committed to individual students, with the disposition, passion, and energy to make strong connections with young people and to engender in them a passion and enthusiasm for learning. Great teachers who love working with kids and believe that each one is capable of learning contribute to a culture that, when developed with intentionality, can be more important than curriculum, technology, or strategy. A leader’s job is to nurture what David Price, author of OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live & Learn In The Future, refers to as this “ecology of learning” by recognising what Schein suggests: “the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” You can have all the strategy you like, but without a culture that makes certain values, beliefs, and assumptions operational, change initiatives are destined to fail.

A strong culture is all about relationships and creating an environment around these interactions in which teachers and, therefore, students will thrive. These relationships are founded upon ongoing professional conversations about student learning, not conducting cute “teacher of the week” routines. Too often schools put strategy first, usually in the form of introducing changes intended to improve learning. Frequently in these endeavours, undue attention is placed on school structures, but as Fullan points out, such initiatives will enjoy limited success because real change comes about by “transforming the culture”. Teaching and learning are a human endeavour and the environment in which these things happen – what David Price refers to as “a hospitable habitat for learning” –  is vital.

The following are some of the key characteristics of a school that intentionally values and strives to nurture a positive school culture: conversation, collaboration, trust, moral purpose, tangible support, appreciation and recognition, open communication, caring and humour. A truly great school not only values these things but actually builds its systems of operations around these key concepts. So, for instance, a school that values these qualities systematically will have a very different approach to teacher appraisal, assessment, and recruitment compared to those in use in the majority of our schools today. But today’s schools cannot be faulted for trying to change, they have simply failed to see that putting culture first is actually the most critical strategy in change management. Culture and strategy can co-exist, if the former drives change. As Coffman and Sorensen observe, “strategy is the promise that culture must deliver.” The reverse is why school change too often fails. As Hinde points out: change in schools “is often met with resistance and is doomed to failure as a result of the reform being counter to … [the] school culture.”

We know that placing the latest cutting edge technology in the hands of a weak teacher will do little to improve learning. And so it is in a school with a great strategy and a weak culture. School leaders need to pay more attention to recruiting the very best teachers then supporting them in a collaborative, supportive environment that enables them not only to embrace change, but to lead it.