I’ve often walked into a school and within minutes formulated a perception that it has an invigorating, innovative and creative culture where there’s a high degree of focus on student engagement and collaboration, and the majority of staff talk with enthusiasm about curriculum and learning. On the other hand, I’ve visited schools where staff tend to work in isolation with no sense of vision and purpose, and teacher talk is often couched about the interpersonal relationships about each other, and the difficulties in teaching due to the nature of students and the school environment.
Why do some schools have an inspiring school culture from the moment you walk through the front gate with an expectation that students and staff want to be there as a centre of learning? This morning, I sat in the Longfellow Hall and participated in an amazing workshop by Dr Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell that examined a shared definition of culture and how members of a school influence and shape it for better or worse. She commenced the session with a shared definition:
“The culture of an organization is the shared pattern of beliefs and assumptions held by organization members. It is their characteristic way of perceiving and producing the organization’s values, norms, behaviors, artifacts and environment.”
At Merrylands East Public School, we hold the fundamental belief and assumption that every student can achieve outcomes beyond their years but not necessarily in a linear pattern of progression due to disruptive schooling. We know that our students can engage in learning each day, regardless of time, and use technology to solve authentic problems, design and create products in a collaborative learning environment. We hold the assumption that students can learn in open and shared spaces with teachers working collaboratively together and that standardised test scores are no measure of the achievements of success.
Our beliefs and assumptions shape the way that we work each day and create the values that we hold in our school. The values of teamwork, collaboration, sharing and learning together is permeated on on a daily basis (not always successfully) and have now become shared social norms in the way we operate and structure our school. Sharing learning spaces, for example, is now a given at Merrylands East and it includes students not having their own desk or chair and a non existing principal’s office.
So why do some school cultures seem ‘good’ while others seem ‘bad’. After three hours into the session, Dr Bridwell-Mitchell paused longer than usual with stunned silence in the room as she gathered her thoughts for a moment in front of a lecturn. The whole room could tell that she felt slightly unease by what she was going to say next. A few participants in the packed Longfellow Hall yelled out politely, ‘just say it”, in which she replied, “it’s you!” The response was greeted with affirmation as we all knew the answer and now it was splattered in one of the Harvard Halls to over 200 school leaders from around the world. Principals have a major role in shaping their school culture through the beliefs and assumptions that they bring into a school about student learning, pedagogy and organisation structure through the way they act. These translate into the values for the school and create social norms and boundaries in how staff and students learn each day and interact for better or worse with each other. School culture becomes highly visible in the environment and draws people either in or out.
By the end of the three hour session, it was one of the most stimulating process that I’ve undertaken to truly understand the importance of principalship in creating a vibrant school culture.