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The 4 Pillars of a Positive Staff Culture

Part of my professional growth plan is focused on building a positive school staff culture. I am no expert in this area but I have been honoured to learn from many others to help with my growth. It is my belief that one of our main roles as principals is to create the conditions for a positive culture. I will be using my blog to share and reflect on my learning journey. 

I have been privileged to work at two different schools in the past 10 years each having their own organizational culture.  Culture is something that is hard to see but we can always feel; it is the vibe of a school – the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that exist within a school staff. In order to create change in a school, we need to work as a staff to create a positive school culture. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” so before we can talk about driving real change and having deep reflective conversations, we need to change the behaviours to change the culture. So how do we do this?

At James Hill, our staff has focused on building positive staff culture for the past few years. Our goal was to build school culture, not by isolated team-building activities but through the important work we do together.

To ensure we were acknowledging the importance of behaviours, we started with creating some norms or commitments for our staff meetings and collaborative time (Hat tip to Cale Birk for the idea). The staff came up with the list below and I am sure you can see some themes that arise from the list.

This set of commitments guides our behaviours and has helped create an environment where the staff meetings are a place safe enough to have those conversations that often take place in the parking lots and staff rooms. Prior to a discussion that may have some opposing views, we remind ourselves of these commitments.

More recently, we have talked about the attributes of an effective staff culture.  Staff shared their experiences both in a positive culture as well as a negative culture. They then captured words to describe a positive culture and the words were put into a wordle (Hat tip to Suzanne Hoffman for the idea).

Through the work we have done as a staff and through my journey with them, as well as my learning with the staff of Kent Elementary (my former school), I have come up with what I believe are the Four Pillars of a Positive School Staff Culture. I am sure there are many more areas that could be used as pillars but these four have been most effective for our schools. The pillars include cultures that are:

  • Strengths-based
  • Collaborative
  • Innovative
  • Focused

As you can see, these four pillars are also based on the values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care. These values weave their way through all four pillars and without them, the pillars can crumble.

In future posts, I will go through the pillars and values in more detail but here is a summary of the 4 pillars.

  • A strength-based culture is one that believes that EVERY staff member has strengths that can be tapped into to benefit the school as a whole. Feedback with staff always starts with strengths (characters and skills), staff memebrs are given the opportunity to determine their strengths, and each staff member is encouraged to use these strengths in the important work with students.
  • A collaborative culture is one that believes the “smartest person in the room is the room itself” (David Weinberger). Staff tap into the strengths of each other and engage in reflective dialogue to drive professional learning forward and create positive change. Trust is a huge part of a collaborative culture and a big change we wanted to make was to move the “parking lot conversations” into the staff meetings. Truly listening to others is such an important way to build trust and a collaborative culture.
  • An innovative culture is one in which educators feel safe to take risks, think critically and creatively, and implement new ideas with support. An important shift we have tried to make is moving from the question, “Can we….” to the question, “HOW can we…”  An important role for principals is to work to provide the resources (time, materials, etc) to build an innovative culture and help good educators become great educators.
  • A focused culture is one that knows the key areas of growth that the school is working on as well as the strategies that can have the most impact in the classroom. With so many ideas, policies, and procedures being sent our way, it is important to be a good filter and keep the staff focused on they vision and mission.  This continues to be my highest area of needed growth.  

The aforementioned pillars are based on important values of trust, happiness, curiosity, and care that not only guide our behaviours but also guide our journey toward a positive school culture.

At James Hill, we have had our challenges but have made huge strides in moving toward a positive staff culture. This year has provided so many examples of a staff that sees the strengths in each other (and taps into this), collaborates in scheduled meetings as well as on their own time, and is willing to take more risks to bring new ideas to the classrooms. With a revised curriculum in BC, focus has been a challenge for us but we will continue to grow in this area as we use the other three pillars to help create more focus on our mission and goals as a school.

I look forward to reflecting and sharing not only my learning but also our growth as a school organization to continually become a more positive school culture.

 

 

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Sports Day: Shifting From Competition to Inclusion

IMG_6764Last year at James Hill, we made the decision to move away from points and 1st-4th place finishes for our annual elementary school Sports Day. We felt that the focus on points and winning was misaligned with the goal of the day. Seeing students and parents arguing with grade 6/7 student facilitators about who finished 2nd and 3rd in the “Rubber Chicken Relay” made it fairly clear that something needed to change.

I want to be clear that I am not opposed to competition (ask anybody I have coached or played with or against) and there is a role for healthy competition in youth development. I am not the guy that thinks we should give out participation trophies for everyone for just showing up at a tournament but I do think that we often put the focus on winning when the focus should be on development (that is for another post.. in the meantime, check out Changing the Game Project). I do think that our school’s “Sports Day” (which does not really involve a single “sport” and could be renamed) is a day in which the main purposes are fun, teamwork, and movement.

Last year, I did have some questions from parents asking if not focusing on competition was ill preparing our kids for the “real world”. I understand this concern and we do provide opportunities for our older students to compete in floor hockey, track, cross country, basketball and other artistic and academic competitions. For Sports Day, I strongly believe we need to align our activities with the purpose and goals of the event. I am not sure, though, if winning the “Bottle Fill Relay” is the real goal of sports day and helps to prepare our six-year-olds for when they are 18 and entering the world beyond school.  I do know that focusing on movement, fun, and teamwork is a great way to spend a day together as a school community.

When we moved away from the competitive nature of the day, we saw some significant improvements in teamwork, inclusion and fun. People were cheering each other on right through the duration of the activity and often there became a side-event that created even more fun for our students. For example, in our Bottle Fill Relay, rather than the only goal being to fill up the bottle the fastest, our grade 5s started splashing each other as they participated in the event and this resulted in more cheers, laughs, and smiles.  A teacher also recently shared this story with me:

Not having the points and placings has really helped to create more of an inclusive sports day. In the past, when a child with any type of physical or mental struggle(s) was placed on a team, there were statements whispered like, “now we are never going to win.” or “there goes our chances”. She went on to say that this year, not having the overt competitive aspect created the conditions that brought out the best in teams. Students were working together and cheering each other on more than in past years. The goal was not to finish first but, for some students, to simply finish with smiles. Those teams that had a child with physical and/or mental disabilities on their team looked to him/her as an asset rather than a liability (it bothers me to say that students looked at others as a liability in the past but for some, it was unfortunately true). Students with struggles were cheered MORE for their efforts and their accomplishments. Nobody said “oh man, we have Steven..”, they said, “let’s go, STEVEN, we can do this!”. More kids cheered. More kids participated. This was the most inclusive sports day ever.

The key lesson for me is that our purpose needs to guide our actions. Is there a role for competition in schools? I believe there is but elementary sports day should be about movement, fun, teamwork, and creating the conditions to bring out the best in ALL our kids.  Kids will still be competitive with each other in a fun way; however, when we shift our focus away from competition, we get more collaboration, more fun, and more inclusion.