Detours to Thriving School Culture

Lately, I’ve been reading and thinking about organizational culture in the context of my own school system and in the context of other schools with which I work. My reflections on this topic are shaped by a mixture of my own experiences and random readings and coursework, but are most heavily influenced by the work of Andy Hargreaves and the leadership/teaching of Lloyd Den Boer.

I’ve worked in leadership in three different Christian school settings, evaluated and consulted for many others, and served on several boards for not-for-profit organizations. I have seen thriving organizational cultures in which those involved flourish personally while also enabling those around them—colleagues and students alike—to flourish as well. These thriving cultures I would like to call authentically collegial communities. These are the kinds of school cultures where faculty and staff work together to enhance student learning because they believe it is the right thing to do, but also because they feel a strong desire to do so. They are also the places where faculty and staff work well together, not only despite their differences, but often because their differences come together to create strength. The leadership in authentically collegial communities serves to facilitate and support authentic collaboration, to highlight needs, and to inspire toward a direction—hopefully the fulfillment of the school’s vision and mission.

We all want to be trucking down the road in a straight line toward becoming one of these kinds of schools. However, along the way, there are several detractors, road blocks, and dead end side streets that can easily pull us off course. Before we talk in detail about what an authentically collegial culture looks like and how we get there, it is important for us to know and name what is NOT an authentically collegial culture so that we can work to avoid becoming pulled off course by one or more of these detractors.

  • Individualism
    One of the most common detractors is the staff culture defined by high individualism. A graduate school colleague of mine told of a time early in her career when she worked in a large school. She said she parked her car near her portable, walked to her portable, taught all day, ate lunch in her portable, and then walked back to her car at the end of the day and drove home. In five years, she had never had a conversation with her principal and only saw him at monthly staff meetings. And she wasn’t an exception at this school. She was also a very good teacher. This story saddened me because I couldn’t help but wonder how much learning and growth she was missing out on by not working with her colleagues instead of near her colleagues, and how much her students were missing out on benefitting from that learning and growth. I was disappointed that she hadn’t taken professional initiative to seek out colleagues, and I was disappointed that her administrative leadership hadn’t taken professional initiative to engage her in meaningful ways.
  • Balkanization
    Large high schools can fall into this trap easily, as they tend to be organized around disciplines. I remember being in a school where the different departments felt a measure of animosity toward each other as they competed for limited resources to grow their programs. I have also seen this in elementary schools wherein the intermediate department is quite separate from the primary department which is quite separate from the learning assistance (or student support) department. Members of balkanized organizations, be they schools or otherwise, tend to refer to other departments as “they” rather than “us” and rarely participate in cross-disciplinary projects. Each group looks out for its own interests, which may not be directly aligned with the school’s mission and which may not help other groups move toward mission fulfillment.
  • Congeniality
    This may be the most insidious detractor of all because many falsely believe they are in collegial relationships. Congenial communities often emphasize the word community and work hard to protect a warm fuzzy feeling of membership against anything that might harm that feeling. At one school, I felt pressure to be in the staff room at break to ensure I was part of the fun, and I felt that we put significant effort toward creating, fostering, and celebrating fun. Now fun is good, but it’s not going to make meaningful strides toward mission fulfillment.I also knew of a school that ran as a pseudo church. The principal led many “devotional” periods and staff members were strongly encouraged to know each other, support each other through difficult times, and celebrate each other’s personal successes. Dialogue about pedagogy and instruction was rare, and staff members were valued based upon their participation in the staff community. Candid conversations about best practices were almost nonexistent. One member of this school called it “staffocentric.” Don’t get me wrong: knowing each other, supporting each other, and loving each other are all part of our calling, part of how we live into our roles in fostering great learning for our students. But it is not the end toward which we are heading. We are, as a school, called to be about student learning!
  • Contrived Collegiality
    This is most commonly referred to as collegiality by the school leaders. Contrived collegiality is forced collegiality, wherein faculty and staff work on tasks set by their leaders, in groups set by their leaders, at times set by their leaders. There is little initiative by members to enhance student learning, and professional vulnerability is not part of the culture. The strongest example of this for me is a school that aggressively promotes itself around its teaching practices and requires its teachers to engage these specific practices. However, upon spending time in the school, it becomes apparent that many of the teachers, when nobody is looking, go on about their pedagogical business as usual. Often when the leadership changes, the “advancements” made tend to regress, as staff and faculty have not owned the hopes and dreams for student learning and therefore those hopes and dreams have not become embedded in the school culture. Authentically collaborating on improved student learning has not become normative behavior.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and these detractors do not happen in isolation of each other. Often organizational cultures have overlapping detractors that limit their flourishing.

Now that we have recognized and named the reality of our current organizational cultures, we can move on to identifying the benchmarks of authentically collegial communities and what needs to happen (what we can do) to get there. My next blog will explore this topic. Stay tuned!

– David Loewen


Filed under Governance, Personnel Issues

6 Responses to Detours to Thriving School Culture

  1. Great read David! How true it is to see some of these detractors finding their way silently into our school culture. Thank you for the reminder as to what we should be avoiding. I’m looking forward to reading more about the things we should be doing!

  2. David Loewen

    Thanks Jacob, continued blessings on your leadership and stay tuned!
    Cheers, Dave

  3. Phillip Nash

    Thanks Dave for this honest summary of what our schools can be like. School culture is an issue of discussion in our group currently and I am aware of how easily culture can change. Looking forward to future thoughts.


  4. David Loewen

    Thanks for the feedback Phillip. Rich blessing on your work! Dave

  5. Sadly most of the schools these days have these detractors ruining their culture.

  6. David Loewen

    True enough, and while we will never land in perfection, I believe leadership matters and can make a difference in moving school cultures toward a direction of critical reflection and authentic engagement in improving student learning. More on that in my next entry 🙂 Onward and upward! Dave

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