“Culture is what people do when no one is looking” - Herb Kelleher, co-founder of SouthWestern Airlines
Now, more than ever, the culture within a school or college is vitally important to teachers, students, parents, carers and leaders. With discussion, and fall out, around increasing workload growing louder and louder over the last decade (and more), teachers want to work within a setting with ‘the right’ culture.
And this is not only true of teachers: leaders and managers at all levels, in and out of education, want to recruit those who fit into their culture. In the US, a study found that 91% of managers say a candidate’s alignment with the company culture is equal to or more important than skills and experience.
So, how do we develop and maintain the ‘right’ culture? And what is ‘the right culture’? For many teachers and leaders, recognising a great culture is usually done through comparisons: through moving to a new setting to realise that they had previously worked within a great culture or vice versa.
In either case, middle and senior leaders generally set the tone and are key to developing and maintaining whatever culture is in place: whatever standard is accepted becomes the standard. Leadership and management styles and processes, then, are absolutely key.
The first (and most important) part of creating the right culture is in identifying the overall goal for any school or college and finding ‘the why’: what do you want to achieve? Why do you want to achieve it? After this has been identified, departments, teams and individuals (the component parts which make up the whole) will identify their place within this vision.
At the next level, departments, teams and individuals must identify what actions they will take to achieve their component goal, and who will be responsible for completing each element. At this stage, trust and communication are key. If we communicate confidence in individuals, they will perform activities and tasks with confidence. If they are suitably supported and trained, goals will be achieved first time, every time.
This can be difficult – over the last 20 years, many educational settings (and organisations) have operated on a policy of ‘catching out’ staff. A much better approach is ‘catching in’. Look for the positives in staff performance; look for the elements that they perform with confidence to an excellent standard. Comment on this; applaud this; support them to continue to improve this. With trust built through this recognition, teachers will strive to continue to improve and there will be less and less to ‘catch out’ (not that this is any longer a focus).
In an open and honest environment, teachers feel comfortable in the uncomfortable and mistakes are not only permitted but expected. In trying to improve, controlled risks and trialling of new methods should be expected. If teachers are supported to do this, and supported to succeed through this process, an excellent culture becomes commonplace.
In this process, instead of taking control, leaders give control. With this freedom, teachers have the space to develop solutions to school and college wide problems and there is also the space to collaborate and help peers to improve.
In line with trying to ‘catch in’, questioning should be replaced with curiosity: leaders are no longer asking questions to hold teachers accountable; they are asking questions because they are genuinely curious about the impact innovations or strategies have had and they are curious about the impact this might have on students and other staff.
With a focus on people, and a focus on long term improvement, conversations develop in place of meetings and there is a much clearer focus on how long-term targets can be achieved. A mistake which many leaders make is giving their own opinion first – this taints discussions as teachers can feel a need to agree with their line manager. Leaders and managers should be the final opinion that is shared, and it should consider the many voices, opinions and ideas which have come before it, so it genuinely reflects the knowledge, understanding and skill within a team.
Developing ‘the right’ culture is then about sharing and communicating at regular intervals, ensuring that everyone can contribute. It is through doing this that everyone within a team can develop (including leaders).
Clearly, this takes time (and can mean changes to personnel), but with everything from student achievement and progress to staff retention benefitting, we owe it to each other to create ‘the right’ culture.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at a college in the North East. He has previously worked as Head of English and maths in FE and as an English teacher and Head of English in Secondary schools. He tweets @jonnykayteacher and his book, 'Improving Maths and English in Further Education: A Practical Guide', is available now.