This week I had the privilege of representing our school in the company of our Board Chair, Nate Fehrman, at the annual CAIS Heads and Chairs Conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This national gathering of school leaders and governors is always a welcome opportunity to reflect on the things in our schools that matter most. Not only the urgent things, but the important things. For us, the proper formation of students is the most important of these things.
To accomplish this goal, a number of priorities must be pursued with purpose. The academic program must be protected because, without it, our schools would be pointless. The co-curricular program must be celebrated because, without it, our children would not be whole. The development of character must be valued because, without it, our students would be at risk for becoming self-absorbed, judgmental, and selfish human beings.
In order to deliver on all of these priorities, a school must be able to depend on one thing above all else. It is not financial reserves, innovative equipment or the latest technology. It must depend on something much more valuable and far-reaching – it must depend on the culture of the school community. If “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, as Peter Drucker once said, it will “chew and spit out” schools – and the people in them – if they have unhealthy ones. It is that important.
How is culture defined in schools? What does a positive one look like? How is it preserved and sustained? School culture has many facets and every member of a school community has a role to play in its formation and preservation. Its stewards are teachers, students, support staff, administrators and governors – and, importantly, parents. It is safeguarded and promoted by aligned goals for what matters most in the education and lives of children. In schools with strong positive cultures, all stakeholders understand this.
In one sense, school culture refers to the way teachers and other staff members work together, including the set of beliefs, values, and assumptions they share. A positive school culture promotes students’ ability to learn. A negative one foments mistrust and, in the end, compromises the physical and mental well-being of everyone. The opening keynote speaker at our conference, Professor Michael Ungar from Dalhousie University, reminded us that building resilience and a solid foundation for children is only possible if there is a “healthy social ecology” (i.e., culture) in our schools.
The protagonists and heroes of a “healthy school ecology” are certainly teachers and other staff, but also parents, who need to agree on the things that children need to thrive. When there is a positive school culture, teachers work collaboratively and enthusiastically toward common goals. Administrators support and develop teacher leadership and parents look for ways to “cheer on” not only their own children, but other people’s children and the teachers who are working hard on behalf of all of them.
Culture is so much more than what teachers do and believe. After all, they are functioning within an often complex superorganism that consists of many different human beings each of whom has understandable self-interests and different ideas about how things should be done.
Nevertheless, pursuing a culture of educational excellence is only possible when the quest for learning – and curiosity, hope, possibility, and meaning – is ultimately nurtured by trust.
In schools with great cultures, all stakeholders understand that they have roles to play in fostering resilience in students through a strong and positive community.
Ric Anderson, Head of School