6

Building Staff Culture: The Importance of Slowing Down

Too often we communicate, make decisions, and act in such a rush. Yes, there are many decisions that can and should be made on the fly but there are also many times where we should take the time to pause, reflect, listen, and contemplate… and the best way to do this is something that we seem to be losing sight of in education (and society)… SLOWING DOWN.

As part of my professional growth plan, I continue to reflect on the importance of building staff culture but as I moved to a different school in August 2018, my goal has shifted to one focused on building a positive culture to one focused on Instructional Leadership. Although I continue to reflect on developing and now maintaining positive staff culture, I am hoping to wrap up some final thoughts in this post and possibly one more. For previous posts on building a positive staff culture, please read:

Slow Down… 2 words that I have repeated to myself over and over again over the past 2+ years as an educator, a formal leader, a husband, and a father. At one time, I was excited at the speed of my learning and communication as I was embracing all things technology and took pride at being a self-proclaimed “connected educator”. However, as I have taken the time to reflect on life in this hyperspeed world of information, communication, and notifications, I have realized that although the connections with people and ideas are much more vast, connections and ideas within my school and personal life have also lost some depth. Instead of reading and reflecting, I was scanning. Instead of talking, I was texting. Instead of resting, I was racing. As my friend Cale Birk once said, I was continually trying to “drink from a firehose”. I needed to change things… I needed to slow down.

By slowing down… I realized that we can do and feel so much more. My friend Carman McKay shared with our staff at James Hill last year about the importance of face to face conversations (or at the least, phone conversations) as this keeps us connected at a deeper level.  Deeper, meaningful relationships are not formed through quick text messages or emails so he shared that he will text but will not use that form of communication to replace face to face. Following these words from Carman, I also read a book called “Digital Minimalism” that included portions that echoed Carman’s thoughts. In a quest to connect with others, I was using social media to trick myself into believing that I was staying in contact and although I was aware of some parts of people’s lives, I was losing touch with closer relationships with friends, family, and colleagues. For me, I realized social media can serve a purpose and it can be a starting point to a conversation but should never replace an actual conversation.

By slowing down… I moved from skimming and scanning things online and started to actually read and reflect and think more deeply. I now read fewer tweets and blog posts but take more time to read books, research articles, and blog posts that made me think deeply about education and life. By reading less, it gave me time to think more. In doing this, I started to also focus more on things that were truly important in education and my life… things that were evidence-based and/or created a noticeable difference. By slowing down, I could read less, think and reflect more, and focus on fewer things more effectively.

By slowing down…  it helped me, as a principal, to move away from being quick to respond (often when emotions were high) to pausing, reflecting, and then responding in a more thoughtful manner. By doing things like taking email off my phone, I found I was less concerned about the speed of my response to a worrisome email and placed more focus on tone and thought in my words. Because I would only respond to email in front of a computer, I didn’t feel so rushed and I was more focused on the task at hand. I often would even pick up the phone (shocking, I know) and call someone back or request a face to face meeting after an email to ensure that we engaged in an actual conversation where there could more of a chance of empathy and understanding.

By slowing down… it has helped with my health and wellness. I feel I am less concerned about “keeping up” with blogs, tweets, and posts and more concerned about having meaningful relationships with those around me. I still struggle to slow down with being in a job that involves many people and a variety of endless tasks but I have realized that we do have way more time to make decisions. The small ones can be made on the fly but when we are supporting people in a building and have to make decisions that have a serious impact on these people, we all need a reminder to slow down and pause before making decisions. This has helped me to seek first to understand and lead better with my heart and mind.

By slowing down… I take less pride in being “busy”.  We are all busy in some way and this is not something we should wear as a ‘badge of honour’. Over the past number of years, my comfort and pride in being busy prevented me from looking around and seeing that others are willing and wanting to help. I often failed to notice the needs, wants, and wellbeing of others. I failed to notice the beauty around me and take the time to enjoy the moments with students, staff, and my friends and family. The simple acts of going for a walk outside, engaging in a real conversation, breathing deeply, and noticing the many amazing things around us have helped make me happier and healthier. By slowing down, I have embraced many more moments and ensured that I stay in that moment longer while trying to avoid that pull to the busy or perceived urgent matter.

My current school, Shortreed Community Elementary, is full of ALL aspects of life. We can get caught up in the speed of trying to quickly solve the many problems our children and families face; however, this can be overwhelming and exhausting. What some staff (at Shortreed and James Hill) have modeled to me is that in order to best support our community, I need to embrace the team, focus, listen, seek help, work through things in a face to face manner, and… slow… down…

By slowing down… we can create stronger and deeper relationships, make more thoughtful decisions, lead healthier lives.  By doing this, we can positively affect staff culture and the wellbeing of our entire organization.

I continue to have to whisper these two words to myself: SLOW DOWN. In a world that seemingly demands us to be faster, I encourage you to remind yourselves to simply slow down.

9

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.