Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Climate and Culture

One of my interests in the realm of education--as noted in the tagline above--is school culture. I think about culture in education quite a bit: the culture of my classroom, the various institutions I've served, and American education broadly. I am interested in how culture takes shape, and how individuals can contribute to the development of a culture.

And then, every once in a while, I see something that sort of knocks my socks off, and causes me to rethink what I have believed about the culture of education. I had a good example of one of those moments the other day, when I saw this tweet from my Twitterfriend, Justin Tarte (whom you should definitely be following, if you are a tweeting teacher!)

This challenged me--in a positive way--because I think I had previously been conflating climate and culture, and seeing it painted this way helped me differentiate between the two in an obvious way.

The thing is, in the department where I currently serve, our climate and culture are both so strongly positive, I see them as interrelated. We have the sort of climate where we can challenge each other on our ideas, but this happens in a culture of mutual respect, support, encouragement, and an ethos of caring. We hold the mission of our department up high, and we all see ourselves as part of working towards the fulfillment of that mission. This doesn't mean we agree on every little point, but it means that we can disagree well, push each other, wrestle together with challenges...and still love each other, because we trust each other.

What does it take to make this kind of climate and culture come together? I see four things that we are doing really, really well:

1. We have the right people on the bus, and we are in the right seats on the bus.

We happen to be one of the biggest departments on our campus, but we have very few specialists within our department. All of us have experience teaching in K-12, but most of us are generalists, really. However, within our generalities, we may have preferences or experiences that make us better prepared and/or predisposed toward teaching particular courses or serving in particular roles.

For example, I currently teach our elementary and middle school science course. This makes sense, because I was a middle school science teacher for a significant part of my K-12 career. There are at least four others among the eleven in our department who could also teach this course. But I happen to love teaching this course, and my colleagues have affirmed that I'm perhaps best-suited for teaching it, and get the most joy out of teaching it. On the flip-side, while I could teach our math methods course (and, in fact, I have taught math methods in the past, and served as a middle school math teacher for several years) that course is not as good a fit for me. I could teach the course, but I have other colleagues who have a passion for teaching it in an innovative and collaborative way, and it's definitely better for them to be team teaching that course.

It's generally this way for our whole department: we view ourselves as a team, and we play the roles we are called to play.

2. We call out strengths we see in each other.

Related to the first one, we are really good at naming each others' strengths, and drawing on other team members' expertise when needed. While we are all good at what we do, we are not all equally good at all things. So we affirm the strengths we see in each other, and capitalize on them.

For example, I have a reciprocal relationship with one colleague in which we regularly wind up in each other's office, just to bounce ideas off of each other. I have a strong tech background, and she has a strong ed psych background. So, while she is quite techie, she often thinks out loud with me about a particular learning task she's going to assign to her students that involves a new technology, because she sees this as a strength area in me. Likewise, while I have enough of a background in ed psych to speak confidently on some topics, if I have a learning theory topic coming up in a lecture, I will spend some time rehearsing my thinking with her ahead of time.

This emphasis on recognizing the strengths in the others has paid huge benefits for seeing each other as valuable sources of insight and inspiration!

3. We collaborate, and we all lead.

This leads me into a third area where things really come together for us, literally: we prize collaboration and shared leadership. Yes, we have a department chair who is our leader in name, and in fact. But we all play leadership roles in various ways, and our chair actively fosters this.

This actually happens in many, many ways, but here's one example: sometimes we disagree about how our department should address a particular challenging situation. Oftentimes, something like this might come up in a department meeting, we will talk through the issues. But here's the amazing part: an ad hoc committee representing the different perspectives usually self-volunteers to come up with a potential plan, which we then discuss as a whole group in a future meeting. And these plans almost always are the sort that are a best-fit solution for the challenge, whether a program policy, course sequence, research problem, or student situation.

We view each other as knowledgable, experienced colleagues with wisdom, and we are able to not let our own egos get in the way of the mission.

4. We take time to work, play, and pray together.

Perhaps this is summing up the previous three, but I think it is worth mentioning. As we are interacting and collaborating, we include the whole range of human emotions. There is a time to be serious, and when seriousness is called for, we take our work very seriously. But there is also a time to be silly, and when silliness is called for, we are sure to not take ourselves too seriously.

We regularly share burdens and struggles with each other, as well as our joys and celebrations. And I'm not exaggerating at all when I say we pray together. (It helps that we are part of an institution that allows and encourages us to live out our shared faith!) This intentionality of caring for each other in a whole-life sort of way--not just related to our work-life--pays off in deepened friendships. Because that's the truth of it: I consider all of my colleagues in my department very real friends that I know I can rely upon in both joys and sorrows.

Being able to work well together is, of course, essential for a team. But being able to enjoy life together is a gift!

To my fellow educators, what do you think about the climate and culture of your school? Are they in sync? Are they in opposition? And if so, what are you willing to do about it?

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