Recently, I found myself at a conference for administrators, and I was hoping to meet and talk with school leaders who were trying to foster deep, authentic, and positive relationships within and around their school communities. I did hear from some of those people; I also heard from school and district leaders with very different priorities.
In a half-full room, a principal from an elementary school in Atlanta discussed many of the challenges he’s faced in the past five years. In deciding to implement a formal Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program, he shared that his major roadblocks came in the form of teacher buy-in, budget, and prioritizing teacher time on SEL rather than other content. But he believed that this work would lead to a healthier school for everyone involved, so he kept pushing. He told us that if we were trying to implement something like this in our own schools, we should make sure to begin with the adult culture of the building. He said, “School can be a very traumatic place, but as adults, we’ve just gotten used to it.” This principal wanted to remind us how the status quo is ingrained in all of us, even the educators who so desperately want to make schools better places for kids. Starting with the adults and revamping school policies for them had a trickle-down effect in his school; it opened up some of his more resistant teachers to the possibility that these changes would be beneficial, even though they were different. He also highlighted the importance of small gestures that can change the tone of the school (things like systematizing small pieces of positive feedback, bringing mindfulness practices to the faculty, and scheduling regular activities that helped teachers feel cared for and happy with their workplace). This principal also shared the importance of having a culture team with a cross-section of grades, personalities, and auxiliary staff represented. But paramount to the tone-setting work he was doing with the staff was having open conversations with families about the importance of SEL. Some families were resistant, sharing that they thought more structured discipline was the best way for a school to go about its business. Over time, and after seeing positive changes for the staff, families overwhelmingly came on board. The health, well-being, positivity, and support of the adults became the fertile ground for this work to take off with students. Listening to his presentation about how this school pivoted and walked a different path for the past five years was inspiring; I wish there had been more folks in the room to hear him.
There were other sessions so crowded they were close to, if not, standing room only. One such session dealt with the topic of organizational and building health. After reading the description, I expected this session would talk about ways to promote the health and well-being of a school, and I was excited that it was being led by a seasoned principal. I was surprised when the tone of the session quickly devolved into one where teachers were talked about merely as impediments to a school leader doing their job. It was disheartening to see (by show of hands) that while most of the room of about 100 principals and central office staff said they loved their kids, not even 20% of the room said they loved their teachers similarly. Instead of focusing on ways to improve the well-being of a school, this presenter talked about having relationships with the community, teachers, and families so that a principal could get what they needed. Her view was alarmingly transactional and did not seem to be rooted in genuine respect and affection or in a belief in everyone’s inherent dignity. Kids and adults alike notice the difference.
In the school visits that I’ve done in the past several years, I’ve seen a real difference between schools where the adult culture is actively tended and ones where it isn’t, and listening to these two very different sessions made me think more deeply about how important it is to get the adult culture right. When schools do this (through systematized structures and practices like sacred collaboration time, opportunities for colleagues to work and have fun together, and paths to mediate collegial conflict), teachers talk about how supportive their administrators are. Those teachers aren’t overly focused on teacher evaluations or supervisor observations; they view those structures as ways to improve their practice. In schools that don’t tend to the adult culture, there is usually clear evidence of a punitive hierarchy where teachers don’t want to take risks because they fear what will happen if an experiment doesn’t work. Hierarchies exist in schools with and without purposeful adult cultures, but the tone of the hierarchy is drastically different depending on which one you’re in. When teachers and staff are fearful and focused on always presenting a certain way, there’s less genuine camaraderie and community, and it’s not just the adults who suffer as a result. Kids come into the classroom with myriad complex needs that require adults to show up in myriad complex ways. To do this effectively, adults have to be at their best. School leaders need to prioritize creating a positive school culture, and if that work focuses solely on the student body, it’ll miss the mark.
Are you an administrator who wants to think more about how to shift the culture of the adults in your building? Are you a teacher who wants help thinking about how to have conversations with your administrators about strengthening this aspect of your school? Let us know! We’re happy to help.
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