Building on the major body of work of people like Michael Fullan, Terrence Deal, Kent Peterson and Edgar Schein, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker’s new publication, School Culture Rewired, is a compelling and worthwhile contribution to the dialogue on the increasingly recognised importance of organizational culture in schools today. Culture is a bit like weather: it is present whether we like it or not; unlike the weather, however, culture is something that school leaders can shape and guide. A positive school culture can have a profound impact on student achievement. A toxic culture can and does, inevitably, have the opposite effect. Gruenert and Whitaker’s core question about school culture is both simple and powerful: “Is it the sentry at the door or the monster under the bed?” Regardless of what the answer to this question is, school culture needs to be understood, guided, directed, led and nurtured.
Those with a keen interest in the importance of school culture will doubtless have noted a tendency on the part of many commentators on the subject to confuse climate with culture. There are entire books dedicated to ideas like putting an apple on a teacher’s desk or having trite Teacher of the Week awards, all in the well-intentioned, ill-conceived notion that such activities are about culture. Gruenert and Whitaker’s study is notable for its clear delineation and focus on the differences and interactions between culture and climate:
If culture is a school’s personality, climate is its attitude. The biggest difference between the two is that an attitude is far easier to change than a personality [while] morale—the degree of happiness among school staff—is particularly reflective of a school’s culture and has a very strong effect on school climate.
School Culture Rewired is also noteworthy in that it provides pragmatic tools to enable school leaders to understand, evaluate, and transform the culture of a school. Throughout, one can’t help recognise the aphorisms and clear logic of Whitaker’s earlier writings. So many statements in the book ring true and could, in themselves, represent not only great blog ideas, but also, more importantly, the motivation for any school leader to tackle the idea of school culture with intentionality and conviction. The following are some examples of this:
- “Toxic school cultures encourage individuals to see failures as the inevitable results of circumstances outside of their control rather than as opportunities for improvement.”
- “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”
- “A collaborative school culture correlates positively with student achievement. In fact, the term ‘collaborative culture’ is shorthand for all the good things that schools should be doing.”
- “Culture is not some mystical power that thrives on superstition; the locus of control is within the scope of leadership.”
- “Rather than wait for the Good Witch Glinda to intervene, school leaders should look for aspects of their culture that they can influence if they want to significantly increase the odds of cultural improvement.”
While culture was once regarded as the “soft side” of organizational leadership and strategy, it has increasingly come to be recognised as the key to a successful learning environment in which both students and teachers will flourish. Of the many recommendations that the authors make for those who wish to address issues of school culture, two struck me as particularly powerful:
Stop Making Excuses
“School leaders need to encourage others to stop looking for reasons not to accomplish things. But first they have to make sure that they aren’t looking for excuses either. Rather than focus on roadblocks to advancement, find the people in your school who have overcome those roadblocks and learn from them. Never lose sight of how often change starts with a small group of people. Determining when something moves from climate to culture isn’t nearly as essential as building a positive culture that lasts.”
“All parents are not mean, and “kids nowadays” are not all the same. It is vital to be cautious when discussing the contributions that different groups of people have made to a culture, lest you begin to take generalizations at face value.”
At the heart of this book is a strong and insightful understanding of schools, an acknowledgment that no leader wants to work in a school with a toxic culture, and an admirable impatience for school leaders to tackle these issues without delay: “We can talk about the culture, we can talk about changing the culture, we can talk about the things we need to do before we can change the culture—or we can just start changing the culture.”
As the Good Witch remarked to Oz in the 1939 classic, we are capable of more than we know.