Reflections on Transforming School Culture

Sitting here on the morning after our four-day focused conversation on transforming school culture with Anthony Muhammad, I find myself in a familiar place:  Trying to sort out exactly what it is that I’ve learned.

While I’m sure that I’ll be mentally wrestling with questions raised during our conversation for weeks, here are some initial reflections that I know I’m going to hold on to:

Transforming schools must begin with a focus on cultural—rather than technical—issues:  Somewhere in the middle of our discussion, Anthony made the case that any efforts to reform schools must begin with a focused effort to change culture rather than structures—and that rang true for me.  After all, there ain’t a teacher on earth who hasn’t seen a million failed “reform efforts” during the course of their careers!
The reason for failure, argues Muhammad, is that buildings are trying to lay new practices and behaviors on top of unhealthy, resistant cultures.

Which leaves me wondering why school leaders always put technical issues first when trying to drive change in their buildings?  Is it because technical issues are easy to implement and to monitor?  Is it because technical issues are easy to explain to stakeholders—teachers, parents, community leaders?  Is it because school leaders are rarely trained in the kinds of skills and dispositions necessary for addressing cultural roadblocks?

Working from the classroom to drive cultural changes in schools can be an intimidating process:  One of the comments that Anthony made during our conversation that got my juices flowing was that Believers—progressive teachers who have an unfailing faith in the students that they serve—need to get a backbone and begin to actively challenge colleagues spreading negative beliefs across buildings.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  I’m picturing an army of activists beating back curmudgeons in a massive apple fight!

But I also know that “getting a backbone” is easier said than done—even for guys like me who’ve read and written enough in the past few years to have a solid understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Despite what I know, I rarely get involved in challenging practices in my buildings.  Instead, I shut my door and avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because of what David Cohen—a brilliant Californian—describes as “The Glass House Effect.”

He writes:

My colleagues may or may not be aware, but I am my own harshest critic.
So, mindful of the idea that those in glass houses should not throw stones, I hesitate to head into sensitive areas that challenge my colleagues’ practices or beliefs. We don’t yet have the school culture I’d like to see, where we could be critical friends. If we have a
department meeting and I want to challenge someone’s assumption that her grammar worksheets are leading to improved writing, I hesitate because I know my own writing instruction could use improvement too

Interesting, huh?  Teachers—-fully aware of their own personal strengths and weaknesses—are less likely to challenge colleagues because they know that they don’t have all the answers either.  What’s more, the risk of damaging relationships in buildings restructuring as PLCs—where collaborative work is a non-negotiable—is too great to make challenging others worthwhile.

School leaders need to provide training in change agency to Believers:  Time and again during the course of our conversation, I found myself wanting to be a challenger, but feeling completely unqualified to take any meaningful first steps!  As I’ve mentioned here on the Radical, I’m horrible at working with people.  Understanding influence in a human organization is an area of great personal weakness. 

And I can’t believe I’m alone.  My guess is that the majority of Believers are remarkably confident in their abilities as instructors and possess the kinds of technical skills necessary to help change teaching and learning in buildings, but they’ve had little training in how to move others forward. 

School leaders interested in finding allies for change efforts need to begin to fill this capacity gap in their schools.  If you’re counting on classroom teachers to become challengers, they’re going to need more than rip-roaring slogans and rah-rah speech.  Instead, they’re going to need a deep and meaningful understanding of adult learners and human behavior. 

Effective change agents take the emotion out of conversations:  One of the central points that Anthony makes in Transforming School Culture—-and that appeared time and again in our conversation—-was that conversations around change in schools are often sabotaged by emotion.  Teachers get wrapped up in their reality and feel personally attacked when that reality is challenged. 

Looking at this reaction logically, it’s understandable.  Practices are personal to classroom teachers.  Almost without exception, we care deeply about what we’re doing and genuinely want to help children.  Challenging our decisions means that we’ve failed—-and in our profession, “failure” means we’ve let down children. 

No wonder we resist first and ask questions later!

The solution is relatively simple:  Conversations need to start and end with an objective look at results.  The best change agents center their questions on practices instead of practitioners.  When we can separate ourselves from our practices and concentrate reflection on teaching rather than teachers, we’re more likely to produce the kinds of safe conversations necessary for transforming school cultures.  


Now it’s your turn to reflect:

If you downloaded Transforming School Culture or stopped by our conversation this week, what lessons are you walking away with?  What ideas resonated with you?  What do you still need to wrestle with?

Most importantly, what do you plan to do TODAY to drive change in your building or in your community?  We can’t just walk away from this conversation and return to business as usual, can we?

On a side note:  While commenting is now closed, know that our conversation will be available for viewing until the end of time!  You can share the link—-found here—-with anyone at any time who you think needs to learn a bit more about overcoming staff division.

7 thoughts on “Reflections on Transforming School Culture

  1. Nancy Flanagan

    Thanks for a provocative discussion, Bill. You did a masterful job–as usual– in making connections and drawing out key points. You said this, in closing:
    “Conversations need to start and end with an objective look at results. The best change agents center their questions on practices instead of practitioners. When we can…concentrate reflection on teaching rather than teachers, we’re more likely to produce the kinds of safe conversations necessary for transforming school cultures.”
    Well–that’s the underlying purpose of rigidly prescriptive curricula, isn’t it? Separating the teacher’s personal characteristics, their passions and imagination, from the act and content of instruction, and focusing on “results?”
    There is research showing that even when teaching is focused exclusively on standardized instruction to get predictable results, different teachers get significantly different outcomes. Who that teacher is–and how students respond to their personal characteristics and actions–matters a great deal. Even when teachers are faithfully following a script.
    There is always a social interaction component to learning. The story about the teacher with the “test champion” banners? Here’s a possibility: maybe our students are now growing acclimated to the idea that everything (including their future) depends on The Test–maybe it’s now thoroughly embedded in the national consciousness, as well. (In a school that puts banners up that’s almost certainly true. And it’s been true in other nations for decades.)
    There are lots of kids who actually prefer drill and kill. (The ones who are good at it.) It’s familiar, predictable, and leads to success on tests, which they now see as all-important. A teacher who veers from that straight path is now suspect. And–while some creative teachers are connected virtually to like-minded instructional trailblazers and pioneers–most teachers are figuring out their practice beliefs in their school context.
    SO–while it’s safest to begin talking about teaching not teachers, in the end teachers’ personal beliefs matter a great deal.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    John wrote:
    I hope some other bloggers will listen and learn and begin to engage interviewees in the same way
    Thanks for the compliment, John.
    I think your last point is an interesting one simply because I think the participatory culture that has developed alongside of Web 2 tools has really changed the way that I see “experts.”
    10 years ago, I would never have thought to challenge the work of a recognized author simply because the vehicle for challenge didn’t exist. What was possible influenced my behavior.
    Today, digital tools allow for ready interaction between experts and their followers—so challenge seems normal. The result is more thoughtful participants and more reflective “experts.”
    That’s a good change, I think. But it is also one that not everyone has embraced yet. I still know teachers who would never think to challenge an expert and I still know experts who would never open themselves to pushback from teachers.
    Interesting stuff,

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Renee wrote:
    n settings where teacher performance is being measured mostly by students’ test scores, what happens when Fundamentalists hold the AYP high ground in their building?
    Great question, Renee—and one that schools need to wrestle with quickly!
    I was talking to a friend this weekend who told me that he works with a district that provides teachers with banners to hang in their room for every year that they have 100% of their students pass the end of grade tests.
    Think about the National Championship banners that hang in college field houses.
    He was visiting one classroom with a drill-and-kill teacher whose classroom was as far from progressive as you could possibly get. While sitting there, though, he noticed a dozen banners hanging around the edges of the classroom.
    His question: How can you challenge the practices of a teacher who is producing—and being recognized publically—for those kinds of “results?”
    I think the answer lies in careful selection of the things that we choose to celebrate in schools. Just because the state uses standardized tests as a measure of achievement doesn’t mean that schools have to do the same.
    What if schools designed formal systems for celebrating teachers who worked to change their practice or to meet the needs of an underserved population?
    In the end, schools have to consistently acknowledge the kinds of behaviors that they value—and if that acknowledgment ends up reinforcing poor practices or teachers who are toxic to school culture, then the celebration needs to be changed!
    Does this make sense?

  4. John Norton

    Bill, what I like most about this event is that you model how we should all approach professional books — not as purveyors of The Truth, but as tools to push ourselves to reflect more deeply about attitudes and practices. I hope some other bloggers will listen and learn and begin to engage interviewees in the same way.

  5. TeachMoore

    I really enjoyed this conversation on VT. Regret I couldn’t rejoin it on the last day or so due to a family emergency. There is much in the book that resonates with my experiences and generates hope. I especially like the Epilogue (I grew up in Detroit).
    One of my lingering questions is the same as Simon’s: What counts as results? In the book, Muhammad acknowledges that both Believers and Fundamentalists were observed using effective teaching methods and ineffective ones. In settings where teacher performance is being measured mostly by students’ test scores, what happens when Fundamentalists hold the AYP high ground in their building?
    Much more to think about and do with this material; thanks for getting us started.

  6. Simon Oldaker

    I think you’ve nailed several excellent points here.
    For one, the thoughts around culture are key and probably much of the reason that we see all kinds of programs for change and little real change in schools.
    I liked the bit about glass houses. I’ve often thought that teachers avoid discussing teaching because we’re aware that we have a weak theoretical foundation for what we do. We shy away from discussions that could reveal fundamental conflicts when many of us have jobs already full of conflict. Your ‘plank in your own eye’ point is a different take and one I find very convincing.
    I’m not sure what you mean by an objective look at results. Our goal is that children learn and learning, real learning, is a notoriously difficult thing to measure.

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