If Your Culture is Broken, You Can’t Fix Anything else

The most important question a student will ask a teacher is, “Why do I need to know this?” The most important question a teacher can ask a principal is, “Why do I need to do this?” If we don’t have compelling, informed, and relevant answers for those questions, we’re in trouble before we start. Our answers inevitably reflect how we understand and articulate the culture of our school.  And why does culture matter? Because if your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else. This is probably the single most important thing I’ve come to understand over the last twenty years of my work in education.

As the Florida K12 Chancellor of Public Schools, district superintendent, and Executive Director of Florida Association of School Administrators from 2000-2011, the easiest thing for me to find was a failed implementation of some new program, curriculum, strategy, technology, or school improvement model. By failed implementation, I mean that after two or three years, the program or strategy either had either not taken root or not survived at all.

Failed or poorly executed implementations were literally everywhere I looked. For example, before visiting a school with a large ELL population, I’d be told all teachers had been trained in GLAD Instructional Strategies, and yet in the course of my visit, I could often find little evidence of them being used in classrooms. Over the years I’ve also found that in any meeting I’m in, about the easiest way to get agreement around the table is for someone to say: “It’s all about the implementation.” Without exception, people will nod in agreement. I’ve heard it over and over. Meanwhile, schools and districts continue to lurch from one new idea to the next. I’ve come to the conclusion that the “implementation” cliché is like the old weather cliché: Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

One exception to this trend is Farrington High School, in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii — one school that is definitely doing something about it. Or, as they say at Farrington… “making shift happen!” Farrington is a two-time ICLE Model School because there is something special about the highly effective culture school leaders, teachers, and students are building there. It’s a culture built on a foundation of positive Relationships, sharing a vision of Rigorous and Relevant learning for all. Through their shared vision, school leaders, teachers, and students are creating a highly effective culture of learning, a positive culture built on three things: Trust, Empowerment, and Collaboration.

At the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, FL, Farrington teachers and Principal, Al Carganilla, will again share specific strategies he and his team have used to earn teachers’ trust, and empower them to collaborate on ways to literally re-invent their classrooms. At Farrington High School, everyone is teaching and learning! Teachers are learning from teachers, students are learning from students and teachers, and teachers regularly collaborate to create inter-disciplinary, real-world Quad D Lessons. For almost four years now, it’s been my great privilege to join them on their journey from struggling to successful by serving as their ICLE Coach.

But, how did they start? How did they successfully begin to move their culture from one of compliance to innovation? It began with two key steps. First, Principal Carganilla needed to earn his teacher’s trust. He began by creating a new Mantra: “You are pre-forgiven.” What does that mean? It means that you’re implicitly giving people the benefit of the doubt and treated with respect. Have an idea you think will better serve students? “You are free to try it and supported in doing so” is the message to teachers at Farrington. Want to try a new program, technology platform, or instructional strategy? Want to collaborate with colleagues to decide, design, and deliver your own professional development? Go for it! Wait, what? Teachers in charge of their own Professional Development?!

Yes. At Farrington High School, that was step two. The Teacher Leadership Cadre, or TLC, is empowered to design and deliver their own PD to every teacher, every week. In their Model Schools session this summer, these Farrington teacher leaders will show you step-by-step exactly how they do it. In my Model Schools session, “The Chemistry of Culture,” I will show how exciting new discoveries in the field of Neuroscience support each of the strategies Farrington is using. If you can attend both, you’ll get a great understanding in both the brass tacks of school culture improvement as well the reasons why and how it positively affects human beings.

The bottom line is, when it comes to culture, we know what to do and we know how to do it. We know how to make classrooms more engaging and effective for all our students. And we’ve been talking about the need for 21st Century instruction for, let’s see, eighteen years now! I mean we’ll soon be a quarter of the way into the 21st Century. Think of your own school. Do your classrooms look like they’re ready for this century? Most importantly, are they classrooms where you would be genuinely excited to send your children? I mean, your own children? If your answer is any version of, not so much, why? The short answer is: If your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else.

Whether your school’s culture is broken, or just not where you want it to be, my Featured Session at this year’s 26th Annual Model School Conference in Orlando, Florida will explore exciting new findings in the field of Neuroscience that not only support the work Farrington is doing, but also what brain scientists are uncovering the “Chemistry of Culture.” My session will provide both school leaders and teachers with specific brain-based strategies that you can use to build a more highly effective and positive school or classroom culture. I hope you will join us. In the meantime, I’ll be posting more in this space.

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