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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.

 

 

2

Pondering Meetings: Who is at the Table?

Originally posted at Connected Principals blog.

While reading Carol Dweck’s “Mindset“, I came across this great quote from Lou Gerstner:

“Hierarchy means very little to me. Let’s put together in meetings the people who can help solve a problem, regardless of position.”

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

By Richard Rutter http://bit.ly/jRWxgJ

Dweck also adds that from the view of the “…growth mindset, it is not only the select few that have something to offer.”

How many meetings do we have per year that do not include the voices those that have something to offer? Students? Parents? Support staff? Teaching staff?

How many decisions are made without those who the decisions have the greatest impact (ie. How many decisions are made about teaching that involve those that do not teach)?

It is time we move away from the traditional structure of admin meetings and staff meetings to a model of learning conversations that include those who choose to be there and those that want to see action (similar to the movement toward EdCamp model for professional development). What if, instead of a certain number of staff/admin meetings per year, we lessened those and added meetings that were open to engaged parents, students, community members and the dialogue focused on a specific area of interest?

Can we move away from the hierarchical structure to one that welcomes the voices of those that choose to be there – those that are engaged and want to see solutions – and away from the structure that includes only those with certain positions?

I would love to hear from any people that have changed the traditional structures of meetings in their school/district to a model that works to flatten the hierarchy and include more voices of those that “can help solve a problem, regardless of position”.

8

Making Meetings Meaningful

Originally posted on Connected Principals

As a teacher, I sat through endless staff meetings where information was relayed and the same teachers commented and gave their donated ‘air time’.  As a principal, one of my main goals was to make staff meetings meaningful.  Just like a teacher designs his/her lessons with the students in mind, staff meetings need to be designed with the staff in mind!

My assistant superintendent, Scott Benwell, made a comment to me that put things in perspective for me.   “We have about 15 hours a year set out for staff meetings (due to contract agreement in our district); how are you going to spend those 15 hours to make these meetings the most effective?”

Although I have been a principal for just over 1 year and I continue to learn new ideas every day, here are 10 things I try to do to make meetings meaningful:

  1. Limit the amount of relayed information. If it can be stated in a memo/email – do that!
  2. Spend the majority of time on professional development. This does not mean having your staff sit through another PowerPoint presentation about data.  Facilitate conversations with your staff about topics that are meaningful and that have impact on student learning.
  3. Disagreements are powerful. Some of the best meetings in which I have been involved included fantastic, passionate debates around what we do for our students.  One of the best things about education is that two educators can completely disagree but believe wholeheartedly that what they are doing is best for kids.
  4. Keep to the scheduled time.  If a meeting is set for 1.5 hours, keep it to that time (or shorter).  Staff members have busy schedules!
  5. Invite to Optional Meetings. If there is a topic/issue in which some staff members are truly passionate, invite them to an optional meeting to discuss.  In this way, the only people at the meeting are those that have an invested interest.  Some of the best conversations have occurred at these optional meetings.
  6. Include Everyone. Stop the hierarchy.  If we truly are a learning community, include all staff members.  Too many times, support staff feel silenced at staff meetings; they are as passionate about kids as teachers/administrators so make sure all members have an opportunity to have their voice heard.  Remember that a staff meeting is not about YOU, it is a STAFF meeting. The most effective change is when it comes from the staff so provide a platform for people to feel comfortable speaking.  Include staff in the development of the agenda as well.
  7. Put Out the Agenda in Advance. This may seem like a no-brainer but it is key to having effective dialogue.  People can come prepared to discuss and issue/topic.  Conversations that are thought-out rather than reactive are that much more powerful. Also, limit the number of items on the agenda so there is time for conversations to go deeper.
  8. Set It Up! Make sure that the place in which you meet is set up in a way that encourages all to share their voice.  It is often effective to split up the cliques of people in fun ways too – people can learn more from hearing perspectives of people they may not talk to on a regular basis.
  9. Food, Glorious Food! Meetings often occur after school – people are tired and hungry so keep the staff nourished!  We have an awesome spread each staff meeting as each staff member signs up to bring food one time during the year.
  10. Use Humour.  Stories, Seinfeld Clips, comics… set the tone. George’s Views on Collaboration – Jerkstore! (video could not be embedded, sorry!)

Remember the limited amount of time that all staff members are together – make the most of this time, make it meaningful.

As I love to hear more tips from other educators, please comment so we can continue to improve our meetings.

Following the writing of this draft, I came across a recent post on the topic by Scott Elias: ‘Meeting to Meet’.