School Leadership

Cultivating a Strong Staff Culture

School and district leaders can build strong relationships among educators by focusing on three factors.

November 6, 2018
A school administrator talking with teachers at a table in the library
©iStock/FatCamera

In a school or district, as in any organization, the leader is responsible for setting the tone, and one way leaders can nourish organizational harmony is to consider three spaces: the physical, the interpersonal, and the historical.

Only by balancing these three spaces will leaders cultivate the influence that permeates an entire organizational culture, and only by attending to these critical human needs will leaders experience the deep happiness that keeps them engaged and attentive for the long haul.

The Physical Space

We’ve all seen amazing work in transforming classrooms into flexible learning environments, but are we attending to the learning needs of adults with the same thoughtfulness? If adults are experiencing professional gatherings by sitting in rows, there’s an immediate—and easily fixable—obstacle to promoting a sense of togetherness.

One way a leader can create opportunities for members of their team to know and influence each other is to move professional learning experiences into new physical spaces. At Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California, we’ve visited the ropes course at nearby Fort Miley for the past two years for professional development (PD) days. The mere act of gathering under the cypress trees overlooking the Pacific Ocean taps into something primal in our nature as humans.

The fun and fear of stepping out onto ropes and logs—some mere inches off the ground, others 30 feet up—is a powerful metaphor for what we ask our students to do every day. In the words of a participant: “Fun and definitely a great way to get to know my coworkers. Talking and interacting with them in a different setting where no one is wearing their teacher hat is priceless.”

But the ropes course is not a necessity. Educators spend most of their days indoors—why not move a meeting outside, either for a walk-and-talk or a gathering under a shady tree? Or we can spend a PD day at a local park or open space, with hikes, scavenger hunts, and breakout sessions defined by topography rather than classroom number.

If we want to generate outside-the-box thinking, we need to step outside the box of our school.

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The Interpersonal Space

Educational leaders are often seen—and often see themselves—as technicians, people that attend meetings, coordinate events, interact with community, hire and fire, and work with kids in trouble. All those things are true, but they aren’t the whole job of a leader.

Steve Zuieback identifies those elements—structure, process, and patterns—as being “above the green line,” or part of the system infrastructure of an organization. They’re essential to an organization’s functioning, but they don’t create avenues by which organizations undergo and sustain transformation and change.

When an organization is purposeful about the “below the green line” realities of human infrastructure—relationships, information, and identity—it creates the conditions for meaningful connections between people centered around shared values and mutual purpose.

Teacher leader Scott Bedley of Eastwood Elementary School in Irvine, California, helped conceive and facilitate a staff cooking challenge for a PD experience. The outcomes were to create “a better understanding that in this profession we are all given ingredients that we have little control of, while being expected to make something incredible—which we do.”

This activity, like the ropes course, had both concrete and metaphoric meaning, and pushed members to confront their fears and discomforts (about the dish not turning out perfectly, not looking or tasting better than their rivals’ dish, etc.).

The Historical Space

Memory is an integral part of an organization’s identity, the fire around which we gather. It is also imperfect—each of us has our own memory of something, how it came about, why it came about. A leader with an eye on the future will help the organization make careful note of its past to ensure there is clarity and consensus on the what, when, and why; otherwise, the staff will have a random assortment of perspectives and memories that diverge in critical ways.

Leaders focused on productivity understand the critical importance of helping their schools establish their historical narrative as a collective, collaborative, and ongoing endeavor.

Grant Althouse, the new principal at Kent Middle School in Marin County, California, led his faculty through a protocol designed to help an organization gain a clear sense of its history. As he shares: “This was a powerful exercise for me as a new principal at the school to learn about, understand, and acknowledge the rich history of our organization, prior to envisioning our future. I think it was also a positive experience for our faculty to reflect about our school, connect with each other, and frame our current areas of focus around lessons learned in the past.”

A school can have all the best structures in place—flexible bell schedules with built-in collaboration time, interdisciplinary programs, standards-based rubrics, and feedback models—but without a sense of unity and trust among teachers, staff and leaders will struggle to bring to fruition the best ideas and scale them across the entire school or district. When a leader doesn’t invest time and energy in cultivating genuine relationships and trust, they’ll find that their good ideas fall on deaf ears.

More important than the influence leaders earn is the fabric of influence they help the members of their organization weave among themselves. For the most part those members will be part of the system much longer; their institutional—and interpersonal—memories will determine the trajectory of the organization.

People cannot influence each other, however, if they don’t know each other, and if they don’t share cherished memories and joyful moments that leaders can make possible through these spaces.