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 20 years of my work in education.

As the Florida K-12 chancellor of public schools, district superintendent, and executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators from 2000 through 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 it had not survived at all. 

Failed or poorly executed implementations were literally everywhere I looked. For example, before visiting a school that had a large population of English language learners, I’d be told that all teachers had been trained in GLAD instructional strategies; 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. 

How One Model School Fostered a New Culture of Learning

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 International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) Model School because there is something special about the highly effective culture that 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 create 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, Florida, 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 learn from teachers, students learn from students and teachers, and teachers regularly collaborate to create interdisciplinary, 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 teachers’ trust. He began by creating a new mantra: “You are pre-forgiven.” What does that mean? It means you’re implicitly giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating them 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 on, 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 (TLC), is empowered to design and deliver its 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 uses. If you can attend both, you’ll get a great understanding of both the brass tacks of school culture improvement and the reasons why and how it positively affects human beings. 

Read more about the Farrington High School journey in Principal Al Carganilla’s 2017 blog post.

Mending a Broken Culture

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 of our students. And we’ve been talking about the need for 21st-century instruction for—let’s see—18 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,” then why? The short answer is: If your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else.

My work with struggling schools has convinced me it’s not just that if your culture is broken you can’t fix anything else, but it’s also if your culture is broken, you can’t implement anything else either. And after some serious reflection, most of the schools with which I’ve worked have agreed that their culture was, if not broken, at least not effective. That’s how I began to better understand the truth of what Bill Daggett has been saying for years. Culture doesn’t just eat strategy for lunch; over the years, I’ve seen that culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert!

Whether your school’s culture is broken, or just not where you want it to be, my featured session at this year’s Model Schools Conference in Orlando will explore exciting new findings in the field of neuroscience that support not only the work Farrington is doing but also what brain scientists are uncovering about 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.