The 5 Types of School Cultures


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You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined, episode number 200.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast...

where we rethink what's possible to transform your school. If you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now, here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey, builders, welcome to another episode of the school leadership reimagined podcast. I'm your host, Robyn Jackson.

And today, we're going to talk about the five types of school cultures and and as we're talking about these five types, we're going to talk about the benefits of each type, and also the pitfalls of each type. And I want you to listen and try to figure out which one of these five types is your school culture currently. Now, before we get into all of that, I've got something really cool to announce. You see, the reason we're doing this podcast episode today. And the reason I'm going to be talking about culture over the next couple of weeks, is because I'm putting the finishing touches on a brand new course, that we're going to be debuting inside a builder ship University. And this course is all about how to build a 100% culture over and over again, I hear everyone telling me that their one of their biggest challenges as they're on their builders ship journey, is once they create that 100% vision, once they they really commit to serving and making sure that 100% of their students are successful.

The big challenge that they have is how do they convince their teachers to believe in that vision? How do they get the kids to believe in that? How do we get the families to believe in that. And so what we're going to talk about in this brand new course is exactly how to do that, I'm going to be breaking it down step by step. Now normally, when I film a course, I go into the studio, it's just me and the crew and a camera. But I find that I am much better when I can teach live when it's not just me and a camera when I'm actually talking to real live people. So we had a great idea. We thought, you know, why not open up the filming to anybody who wants to join. And the cool thing about it is that I get a live audience that I can interact with. It gives me energy, it helps me to be more focused. But everybody who joins us live gets the entire course for free. They get when you join us live, you get to experience everything that we're doing absolutely free. Now, once the course is filmed, it goes inside of builder ship University, and it's only available for people in BU. But before that happens if you join us live, you can watch the entire course you can experience all of the brand new content. And trust me, this is some of my best stuff, it really is very good. And you also get an opportunity. What I'll do every single day is I'll build in some time during the filming, to pause and answer questions from the audience. So you get opportunities to ask questions to get coaching on your culture in your school. And what you learn is something that you can immediately apply to your school culture. 

So I'll be giving you some more details about that in the next couple of weeks, how you can sign up and all of that. But what do you think I think it's a really win win situation for everybody. And to make it even sweeter. What we'll do is if you can't be at every single session live, when you sign up, you'll have the opportunity to rewatch the replay for 24 hours after the filming. So we filmed that day and you can't be there live. When you get home from work that day, you can get the replay, take a look at it and still experienced the course now eventually all of this is going behind closed doors inside a builder ship university. But this is your chance to get some of the amazing content inside of builder ship University, absolutely free. So I'll be giving you some more details about how to sign up. But look out for that look out for the email well you'll get the link to sign up so that you can sign up for this really incredible opportunity to not only get some really amazing content but also some live interaction, some live coaching. Some things that only have been available to people inside of BU and you'll get to see it first before even the people inside of bu get it you'll get it first. So again look out for that information in the next couple of weeks. And when it when you see it makes For that you sign up, don't ignore that email that, you know, if you're already signed up for the school leadership reimagined email list, you're good. Just make sure you're reading the email and look out for that information. If you are not signed up for the school leadership reimagined email list where we send you, you know, the link to every single week's podcast, then you need to go to school leadership, reimagined and sign up there, so you won't miss a thing. All right. Now let's talk about today's topic. I have been so fascinated with this. As I've worked with schools over the years, I've noticed that most schools cultures can be classified in one of five categories. And so today, I thought I'd share with you those categories. 

And as you're listening, I want you to think about your own school culture and where it might fall in these categories. 

Okay, so the first kind of school culture that I notice is the toxic school culture. And we're all familiar with toxic cultures. But basically, a toxic school culture has negative relationships, you know, there's a lot of infighting, as the principal, you spend a lot of time either refereeing those fights, or sometimes you get dragged into those fights yourself. There's a lack of trust, you don't trust your staff, your staff doesn't trust you, and they don't trust each other. So you might have these cliques going on, you have a lot of infighting. And the focus of the culture is really on blame and criticism rather than on collaboration and problem solving. So everybody's blaming everybody else, everybody's pointing the finger. And as a result, nothing is getting done in that toxic school culture. And also, teachers feel a high level of stress and conflict, and you feel it too. And not only do your teachers and you feel it, but your kids start absorbing that as well. They start feeling every single day stressed out and conflict and so your toxic school culture is actually impacting your student's well being. Now, the challenge, if you are in a toxic school culture is is quite profound. Because anytime you're in a toxic school culture, those negative relationships and that lack of trust, it creates this feeling of being unsafe, it creates a stressful learning environment for the kids. And so as the kids are absorbing a lot of that toxicity, they start to feel unsafe, they start to feel this disequilibrium, they start to feel like the adult problems, they begin to absorb them and they start to feel like they're not safe. And they start to pick up on those behaviors and mimic those behaviors as they're interacting with each other. And when you focus when the culture is so focused on blame and criticism, then you create this level of fear and, and disengagement. Not only amongst the staff, but amongst the students. People just check out people just kind of, you know, try to avoid getting in the crosshairs of the toxicity. And so people begin to disengage. And as they do that, your kids begin to disengage as well. So if you are currently experiencing a toxic culture, then you know what I'm talking about, you know, how stressful it has to go to work every single day. Here's the thing that that a lot of principals miss when they're dealing with a toxic school culture.

You can get so caught up in the toxic school culture, that you don't even realize that your attitude becomes toxic as well. You know, it's, it's really hard to like your staff, when they're behaving in these toxic ways. It's, it's really hard to see beyond the toxic behavior to the potential of your school. And so when you have this toxic school culture, it's hard to believe that 100% success as possible. I mean, yes, in your heart, you want to believe that you you're an educator, you want to believe that all kids can be successful. But when you're in a toxic school culture, that culture begins to erode your belief and you no longer believe in in 100% success for every kid. And so even if you say it, even if you say we need to be serving all kids, you don't say it with conviction, because you're always bracing for the onslaught of of negativity that's going to come from your staff, when you insist that every kid be successful. So it's really hard to even get 100% vision going when you are dealing with a toxic school culture. All right, the next kind of culture and I hope none of you are dealing with that. But the next kind of culture that we deal with, you have a toxic culture, but then you also have what's what I call a traditional culture.

And the traditional culture is a culture that's kind of stuck in the past. 

They these cultures tend to be hierarchical. There's a there's a strong emphasis on rules and procedures, the way things need to be done. The focus of this kind of culture is more on and maintaining order and control than anything else. So this is the kind of culture that really, you know, kind of harkens back to the way school used to be. And in this kind of culture, teachers are focused on making kids behave, following the curriculum, making kids kind of aligned with their view of what a good kid should be. This kind of culture produces a lot of compliance in the kids, but it also produces a lot of compliance in the adults as well, you know, if you're in a traditional culture, then the only way to move up is to do the things that are expected of you. 

So many of you have districts that are enmeshed in this traditional culture, right. And in a traditional culture, you will hear a lot of the buzzwords, so you're gonna hear things like standards aligned, you're gonna hear words, like, you know, differentiation, and there's a lot of talk about rigor and and talk about best practices, and you can't do anything unless you justify it by research or best practices. And what happens is, when you're in a traditional culture, the best you can get out of that culture is compliance, because the whole culture is kind of focused on compliance is focused on the kids following the rules, the kids doing what they're supposed to be doing, teachers get really, really frustrated in a traditional culture, because these kids don't do their homework, or these kids don't study or these kids don't seem to care. And a lot of times in a traditional culture, the kids wait to be spoon fed, because the culture itself sends the message that you can't go outside the box, you can't veer from what is expected of you. So the kids are very passive learners in a traditional culture. And the other challenge is that this emphasis on control and compliance and following the rules, it really stifles creativity and innovation in your teaching staff, your teachers just follow the curriculum, your teachers are focused on best practices, and and trying to align with, with what the district tells them or what you tell them is the right thing to do. 

The other thing that happens in a traditional culture is that everybody kind of looks to you because remember, I said it's hierarchical. So everybody kind of looks to you to decide. So you see a problem happening in the classroom, and you come up with a solution, and then you expect everybody to follow that solution. The other challenge of the traditional culture is that, even when it's a good idea, because you're so focused on following the rules, you can take a good idea and turn it back. You know, visiting classrooms every day is a great idea. It's something that should happen. But in a traditional culture, it's more about getting into X number of classrooms a day than it is about giving teachers feedback and support that helps them improve their practice, you know, instructional practices, the research based instructional practices are good, they they're considered best practice for a reason. But in a traditional culture, you lose the point of the best practice. And it's really about conforming and, and complying to a script, rather than using and leveraging best practices to reach every single kid. And then the most dangerous thing about a traditional culture is that in a traditional culture, we expect some kids are going to fail. Tradition has always been that no matter what you do, there, just a certain number of kids, you're not going to be able to reach and all you can do is do your best, and then hope for the best. And that kind of attitude runs so counter to this idea that 100% of your students can be successful. In fact, that idea of 100% success, it flies in the face of tradition, people in a traditional culture will hear that idea. And they'll say, that's not that's not realistic, you're being very naive, when in fact, you're not being naive, but they can't see that because they're so stuck on the way things have always been that they can't even imagine that things can be different. 

So think about your culture. 

Are you in a toxic culture? Are you in a traditional culture? Or are you in a third kind of culture, which I'm going to call the inclusive culture, right. So this is a culture that's really focused on diversity and inclusion. In this kind of culture. Everybody is committed to create an environment where everybody feels welcomed, everybody feels valued. And that extends to students, to staff to families, you know, from a wide range of backgrounds. And the whole point of an inclusive culture is we're trying to make sure that everybody feels comfortable in our culture. And when you're in an inclusive culture, the impulse is really good. You know, there's a focus on equity. There's a focus on making sure that everybody's included, there's a focus on making sure that that we are distributing resources in a way that helps every child be successful that every child and every family feels welcome. In an inclusive culture, the emphasis is really on equity. It's really on inclusion, it's really on writing some historical wrongs. And so this is really about making sure that every child feels safe, every child feels welcome. Now a lot of schools have have kind of veered towards an inclusive culture, especially in light of some of the things that have happened over the last few years, their focus on equity is laudable. But the challenge with this, this kind of inclusivity in the culture is that a lot of times the culture is so focused on on on specific disparities, that they really don't address some of the systemic systemic disparities that are promoting the inequity in the first place. Let me let me tell you what I mean by that. A lot of times, these cultures are so focused on making people feel included and welcome and adding new programs to do that, they never take a good hard look at the way the school has operated for years, and the things that may be inherent in the systems themselves. They never, they, they they end up putting lipstick on the pig and doing, you know, let's say a program that explores all the different kinds of cultures or having, you know, trying to create more culturally responsive teaching practices in the classroom. And those things are good, but they try to layer those things on top of some some systemic issues that may be at and that may be the problem. To begin with. Let me give an example. 

Let's take a look at at whether or not students can, can turn in late work that may that that policy, your late work policy or your grading policy, or your homework policy may have may be promoting some systemic inequities. And we don't take a hard enough look at those policies to see whether or not those policies set every child up for success. Instead, we layer on top of it additional programs, that that try to help students be more successful in a system that is completely biased against students to begin with. The other challenge with this lack of this includes are these inclusive cultures is that a lot of times they focus so much on inclusion, that they don't really address some of the unique experiences of different student groups. And that that may not be in that that, that title of inclusion, you know, so they may be so focused on students of color, for example, that they don't really take a look at inequities for ESL students or for students in special ed or for students who are coming from poverty, you know, they kind of focus on certain inequities, but they don't create systems that include every single child. And as a result, they create this kind of one size fits all approach that may not be effective for every single kid, and they fit in. So in the, in the process of trying to address inequities, they may unintentionally create other inequities. So you have to be really careful about inclusive culture. And that's not to say that you should not focus on inclusion that you should not address inequity. But a lot of times that singular focus on addressing inequity, takes the focus off of all the other things that need to happen, takes the focus off of some of the inherent systemic things that that created the inequities in the first place. All right. Now, the next kind of culture we talked about, we talked about toxic cultures and traditional cultures. And we talked about inclusive cultures. The next kind of culture is what I call the collaborative culture, right? 

In a lot of schools, they really focus on collaboration. 

So in a collaborative culture, the focus is really on teamwork, cooperation, no decision gets made in the schools, unless everybody has had a say, the focus in these kinds of cultures is really around building relationships, and working together to achieve a common goal. So teachers and staff are there, they're encouraged to share ideas. They're encouraged to come together to work together to find solutions. And the administrator, it's not the central focus of power, power is shared throughout the culture. Now, here's the challenge with a collaborative culture. A lot of times when you focus on collaboration so much, you end up with groupthink, where everything is put up to a vote and the majority rules and just because the majority likes it doesn't mean that's the best decision for the school. The other thing is that in a collaborative culture, a lot of times and Everybody's so busy kind of collaborating, that and you get this group thing that you don't explore alternatives and new ideas. It's just, hey, let's do it this way. And sometimes other voices get drowned out. And one of the most frustrating things about an overly collaborative culture is that as the administrator, you don't feel like you can ever make decisions on your own. I see this a lot. When I'm working with folks who are new to build a ship. And I'm saying the vision belongs to you. They're like, what about shared vision, and then we talk about the dangers of shared vision. And a collaborative culture. It's not just a shared vision, it's a shared everything. 

So you don't feel empowered to make decisions that you need to make as an administrator, unless you put it to a vote unless you check in with everybody unless you talk to your team. And while it's really good to do that, at times, you don't want to be you know, you certainly don't want to be an autocrat. There are times when you need to make a decision. But in a collaborative culture, a lot of times you don't feel empowered to make decisions. And so things move slowly. Or because you're worried about groupthink, you end up not making decisions or delaying decisions, because you're worried about what the group is going to do and what the group may want may not be what's best for the school, right. And then the other thing is that the chain of demand chain of command gets really confused, right. So in a collaborative culture and overly collaborative culture, a lot of times there's a lack of clarity around whose role it is to make decisions whose responsibility it is, you know, people just, you know, ignore the org chart, and this is just gonna go to the top. So as the principal, you become the clearinghouse for every decision. And you know, people, there's a lot people aren't sure what, what they should be giving feedback on and input in, and where they shouldn't be doing. In other words, there are lanes in order to make a school run well, and be when you have a collaborative culture, everybody's in everybody else's lane. And so stuff gets really confusing and nothing gets done.

The last kind of culture I want to talk about is what I call the innovative culture, right? A lot of schools have a culture that's really focused around innovation, right. And this is a culture where, you know, that's really puts a heavy emphasis on, you know, creativity, they try new things, explore new ideas, you know, as a staff, you are encouraged to take risks to think outside the box. Everybody's focused on continuous learning and improvement. And that sounds great, right? 

But here's the challenge with an innovative culture. 

What do you have an innovative culture, there's this focus on constant innovation. And a lot of times you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the things that are working, because they're older, because they've been there for a while, where, you know, they're there becomes this, people begin to fantasize new stuff. And they begin to think that if it's not new, then it's not good. And so you end up throwing out things that are working in the name of innovation. And along with that, when you do that, because everything is always innovating and changing, you might find that in these cultures, there's a lack of consistency or stability. And that can be really upsetting to students and families, because, and to teachers, it becomes very disorienting before teachers can get good at one thing, you're now innovating on that thing and turning it into something new. So people never really have a chance to develop mastery in something because you're constantly innovating, you're constantly changing things. And then the other challenge that happens is that, that at least for students, when you're always innovating, not every innovation serves kids, right. So if innovation is the value, and not what serves kids, a lot of innovations don't work as well as the thing that you were working on to begin with. And so that can be a challenge for kids because kids aren't getting the best. They're getting the newest and, and so if you're if your culture is so focused on innovation, that it's not focused on what really works, then you may end up bypassing what works for what's new. 

So there are five different cultures as we talked about, there is the toxic culture. There is a traditional culture, there's the inclusive culture, the collaborative culture and an innovative culture. And all five cultures have their flaws. But when you're a leader, though, you are often left to choose among those five cultures and you just tried to choose the best one, knowing that there are going to be flaws and trying to mitigate the flaws or or maybe try to change it will be collaborative and inclusive and innovative with a little traditional there and some toxicity may slip been. But when you're a builder, you realize that all five of those cultures are problematic. And so as a builder, you often want to read, you want to reinvent your culture, even though your culture on the surface looks fine, like a lot of people say to me, I mean, my culture is fine. But you know what staff loves each other. We're like a family. Everybody works together. Yes, you have a collaborative culture. But that has problems. You might say, my, my culture works fine. Everybody does what they're supposed to do. The kids are well behaved. They may be a little compliant. But that's fine. Yeah, I mean, great. But you have a traditional culture and the problems that that come with that people say to me, my culture is fine, we're really work focused on being more inclusive and, and making sure that all kids feel safe and feel welcomed. Yeah. But there are problems with that you have an inclusive culture. But there are always challenges with that, you might say, my culture is fine. We're always trying something new and innovative. We're doing these cool things. I mean, your culture, yes, you have an innovative culture. But as you can see, now that culture is problematic. And so whenever I talk to people about as a builder, you are going to have to rebuild your culture. They want to tell me that my culture is fine, right? 

Sometimes people say I have a toxic culture, and I definitely need to change and they see the need. But just because you don't have a toxic culture doesn't mean that your culture needs to change. When you are a builder, you recognize that even a pretty good culture is not going to be enough to help you achieve your 100% vision, the only culture that's going to help you achieve that 100% vision is a one 100% culture. Is it a 100% culture, it's not about just inclusivity, or just innovation, or just collaboration, or even just tradition, and a one 100% culture, it's really about everybody being committed to doing whatever it takes to help 100% of your students be successful. The sometimes that's going to require collaboration, but your collaboration isn't collaboration for collaboration sake, it's collaboration around your vision. And when builders create that collaboration inside of a 100% culture, everybody knows what Lane they're in, and they can stay in their lanes. They can and we look at staying in your lane is something negative, it's not negative. When you know your role, the role that you play in achieving that 100% culture, you have time to get really good at that role, you have time to experience success in that role. And because everybody has an important role to play, nobody feels left out. You don't feel like a dictator. Everybody is doing the work that they are there to do. And it's so empowering, right? So when you have 100% culture, yes, there's a place for collaboration. But inside of 100% culture, people can collaborate effectively, without overstepping. And they can get good at their part. So they they make a real contribution to your school. When you have 100% culture, there's room for inclusivity. I mean, there is nothing more inclusive than 100% inside of 100% culture. Inclusivity means everybody. And that means no one gets left out. So inside of 100% culture, there's also room for innovation, but you're not innovating for innovations sake, you are innovating in ways that advance that vision of 100%. Instead of 100% culture, there's also room for tradition, there are some things that you are doing that work. So one of the things that builders do is they don't just up in the applecart. Instead, builders look at the culture and they find the bright spots, and they build on those so that you're not changing everything, you're only changing the things that matter. And you're using the things that work to create that kind of change. 

So you're not creating just random change, that can be very disorienting. 

Instead, your change feels familiar, because you're building on the strengths of your school. Inside of 100% culture, there's no room for toxicity, of course, but how you handle the toxicity how you you prevent it from happening, is is critical to maintaining that 100% culture. So inside 100% culture are are things that prevent toxicity inside of 100% culture, you're doing things to cut toxicity off before it has a chance to to grow and to derail the work and the progress that you're doing. So, even if your school isn't toxic, even if your school is a pretty good school, unless you have a 100% culture, your culture is preventing you from achieving your vision for your school. Now, over the next couple of weeks, we're going to talk about what does 100% culture look like? What's involved in 100% culture? And how do you build that in your school? But for now, my challenge for you this week, is it look at your school culture? And then determine, do you have a traditional culture? Do you have a collaborative culture? Do you have a toxic culture? Do you have an inclusive culture? Or do you have an innovative culture? And then, over the next few weeks on this podcast, we're going to look at how you take any of those five types of cultures and turn that culture and to a 100% culture, like a builder. 

I'll talk to you next time.

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