Culture Matters: How to Steer Your School in the Right Direction

Culture matters. You know this. I know this. Staff, students, and families know this. Even though everyone can agree on the necessity of a strong school culture, changing or improving it can be nebulous.

While school culture is easy to identify, it's also challenging to create and shape. Often it is out of the control of just one person—for instance, the leader or even a group of leaders. Culture creation and formation happens in the actions, reactions, traditions, or lack thereof, all regardless of the well-written mission statement on the wall. Culture is in the doing.

In the oft-used analogy to steering an oil tanker, we know changes can’t be made on the fly because schools, like multi-ton vessels, take a long time to set course, turn, and stop, if necessary. To avoid danger, the ship’s wheel cannot be swung “hard over,” as the shift in momentum can ultimately put the crew and cargo in jeopardy. The same can be said of schools that take on impromptu lofty goals, add initiative to initiative, or suddenly halt plans without notice. 

In addition, simply acknowledging the challenge is not enough. What does a captain and crew do in an emergency aboard a tanker that can take up to five miles and 20 minutes to stop? They do what you should do.

1. Agree on a direction: On the ship, coordinates can be developed through a computer program, satellite imagery, paper charts, and captain and crew expertise. In schools, it can be mission and vision, core values, goals, and leaders that set the points of success. But they have to be followed. 

2. Communicate: On the ship in an emergency, directions are given verbally and repeated for clarity. If an order is not repeated down the chain of command, it is restated again until followed. In school, your direction/mission has to be communicated—really over-communicated—to all stakeholders to set, affirm, or change direction. 

Instead of the ship’s bridge, schools need to use multiple platforms through meetings, school functions, social media, and newsletters to state and restate the how's and why's of what we do. When your district or school communicates well, everyone knows the direction and can repeat it if asked.

3. Act on agreed upon directions: When commands come down for steering vessels up to 1,500 feet long, safety protocols allow no time for disagreement. There is certainly plenty of time for discussion before decisions are made, but once they are made, the school and the district need to act in concert, together for the safety and benefit of all. A deviation from direction muddles the message and leaves gaps open for diversions, dissension, and danger.

Leaders would be wise to keep in mind the methods of steering oil tankers when they take on meaningful changes or additions to school culture. What’s the direction? Who’s communicating, when and with whom? Does it connect to our aligned mission? Does everyone understand where we’re going? How do we know? And finally, do we have everyone aboard with us going in the same direction?

These are not easy questions to ask, but without them, culture formation—no matter how well-intended—will not only fall short but also put everything schools do into uncharted waters, where missteps and unforeseen obstacles can sink ships and schools.