Guest post by Danny Steele
We all know the culture of our school is important, and you understand that building a strong one is how school leaders can impact student achievement. You intuitively understand that schools need to be safe; they need to foster collaboration; and they need to stay focused on the needs of the students. But don’t ever underestimate the small things you do on a daily basis that contribute to the strength of your school culture.
How do you respond to staff members who complain?
To be sure, listening is an important part of our job, and everyone needs to vent from time to time. But how you handle these conversations says a lot about the trajectory of your school. Do you allow staff members to wallow in their negative vibes, or do you reframe the situation? Every challenging conversation is an opportunity to remind staff of our true purpose: doing what’s best for kids. In our school, we had our teachers write their own “Teacher Oath,” in which they were able to outline their own core values and personal beliefs about why they come to work each day. These are helpful for keeping us grounded and keeping the negative energy in check. (You can read about our teacher oaths here.)
What do you communicate through your conversations with the secretary … with the custodian … with the lunch lady?
While the teachers are the adults engaged in the core business of the school, it is a tragic mistake to underestimate the value and contributions of those individuals who play a supportive role. Most principals appreciate the work of the secretaries, custodians, and CNP staff, but they may not always be mindful of how their interactions with these people enhance the culture of the school. When you invest in your support staff, you demonstrate to all those around you that everyone in the school is valued. A strong relationship with your support staff goes a long way toward ensuring the school runs smoothly. It affects the morale of the teachers, and it certainly creates a more positive environment in the building.
This year, our school started “The Kindness Project.” When a teacher spots a student demonstrating kindness, they are given a card. The student redeems the card for a ball to throw in our ball pit. The student also receives a wristband and gets their name on the board. Here’s the thing, though: These are not big acts of kindness; these are little acts of kindness. It is the brief conversations, the little moments, and the small deeds that shape a school. Make a point to notice the little things. When you recognize them and reward them, they will happen more frequently. Don’t just praise the big accomplishments. Your culture is built when you validate the small ones.
What have you failed at recently?
Nobody likes to fail. We all want to feel competent, in control, and on top of our game. Leaders must remember, however, that we will not encourage a culture of growth within our building when we are never willing to step outside of our own comfort zone. If we have not failed recently, we haven’t been trying anything new. If we want our teachers to innovate, we need to start with taking some risks ourselves. When things don’t go as planned, be transparent about it. It may feel threatening, but there is strength in vulnerability. And teachers learn from our example. A school culture that values and celebrates innovation begins with a leader who is willing to climb out on a limb.
How do you handle the interruptions?
You’re busy! I know you have a lot of things on your to-do list. It would be so tempting to be frustrated with the constant interruptions. But never underestimate your impact when you respond to those little distractions—the ones you could easily view as an annoyance. You never know which moments with people will be the ones that they remember … for a long time. Every interruption is an opportunity to make someone’s day, and every interruption is an opportunity to reinforce who and what you value. So embrace the interruptions. Make the most of those unplanned, unscheduled moments. They could end up being the most important moments of your day.
Culture is not primarily built through mission statements, faculty meetings, and school improvement plans. But rather, you cultivate it through the hundreds of little interactions every day. I have heard of leaders having personal mission statements. Those can be a good thing, I guess, but great leaders don’t actually need them. Everyone in the building knows what they’re about. Their values and priorities are consistently reflected in how they spend their time. They are not preoccupied with transforming the culture; they’re busy transforming the moments. The behavior of the principal is never neutral with respect to school culture. Like it or not, they build it every day. I don’t want to build it accidentally or inadvertently; I want to build it on purpose.
What “small” things do you do to help build the culture of your school?
Danny Steele serves as principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in Alabaster, AL, where his passion is building a school culture that values connections with kids, fosters collaboration among teachers, and focuses on raising student achievement. He was recognized as the 2005 Alabama Assistant Principal of the Year and the 2016 Alabama Secondary Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @SteeleThoughts.