Culture is a tricky thing to build, to develop, to get right. You’ll often read articles and posts about toxic cultures in schools which criticise the leadership in such establishments. Creating a culture isn’t as easy as saying – “This is what we want to achieve, this is how we are going to do it.” Culture is hard, especially if you ignore these 6 basics.
Sociologists define culture as the symbols, language, beliefs, values, norms and artefacts that are part of any society. When building the culture in your school how much time did you spend considering each of these cultural building blocks?
Symbols are everywhere in every culture, they range from gestures and non-verbal communication to material objects such as flags or religious iconography. There is a common understanding of what these things mean that makes social interaction possible.
The same gesture can mean different things in different cultures, so ensuring that there is a common understanding of what the symbols that you use in school represent is essential.
What gestures are part of your culture, is there something that everyone does that you all understand, something that shows that you are all part of the same tribe?
Common gestures are signs of greeting each other, you may have seen videos of teachers greeting students individually at the door of the classroom with an individual greeting – some commentators have criticised this as a waste of time etc. They are missing the point. Rituals and symbols about greeting each other create belonging, they build culture. You don’t have to go to the extremes of individual greetings, but having a ritual greeting brings everyone into the group, they all belong there because they have gestures in common.
The most powerful symbol that a school has is its badge. Similar to a national flag, it is a symbol of belonging, a symbol of identity. What does your badge say about your school? Does it represent your culture? Does everyone feel the same about it?
Without language you can’t communicate. Without communication you can’t build a culture. Schools (and education as a whole) are often guilty of using acronyms to communicate information, which is great as long as everyone understands.
How often have you been sat in a meeting, bewildered by the use of strings of letters but not wanting to ask what they all meant in case you felt stupid. This use of language has excluded you, and the same applies to the rest of the school community, use the wrong words and you exclude people from your community, from your culture and from your tribe.
Using language that is specific to your culture is actually a good idea, it builds identity. The huge “but” here is that it must be understood by everyone.
Lots of people have questioned how people such as Donald Trump manage to get elected or retain popularity, the answer is simple, they speak the language of those that follow them. They keep it simple.
Take the time to consider the language of the culture you are trying to build, does everyone understand you?
There are lots of quotes out there that sum this up very simply. You get the behaviour you tolerate. Essentially, it matters what leaders do and don’t do and it impacts on your culture. What are the norms that you want to establish, how will you demonstrate that these are the acceptable behaviours and ways of doing something?
It is worth bearing in mind that there are formal norms and informal norms that make up a culture. In other words, you can’t enforce all norms through the use of policy and an iron fist. Yes, you have to make sure the important stuff is adhered to, there are legal implications if you don’t. But the informal norms are equally important and need to be established and developed too.
As a leader you not only have to articulate your expectations clearly (language) but you have to walk the talk too. You are the epitome of the norms you expect.
The norms that are developed in a culture represent the values that are important for the members of that culture. They involve judgements over what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Schools often state explicit values on their website – what they consider to be desirable values to encourage in their community.
However, there are implicit values to be observed. Walk around your school, consider the following and what they say to visitors from outside your school. There are no right or wrong answers, but it may give insight into the implicit values in your culture and what you might need to change or encourage.
Beliefs are subtly different. They are the things that you hold to be true and are underpinned by your values. If you believe that education should be made available for everyone, then that is underpinned by the value that “an education” is a good thing to posses.
Individuals may share collective values, but have individual beliefs. You can see this divide in the “progressive” v “traditional” pedagogical arguments across the educational sector. Both sides value education, but have differing beliefs regarding how it should be delivered.
Your culture may be built on collective values, but implementation of the vision that you have may depend on the beliefs that individuals have. Those who don’t share your beliefs may not be enthusiastic members of the culture.
Artefacts are the material objects used by a culture. Our modern culture has many artefacts, most notable is perhaps the smartphone, along with other wireless items such as tablets, laptops and GPS devices.
How your school uses these kinds of devices is a mark of your culture. Do you embrace their use or limit them? Why?
Other objects may also be associated with your school, the tools of your trade and how you use them is also part of your culture.
All of these building blocks are important when building a culture that supports your vision, taking the time to observe these things as they are will give you an indication of your current culture and insights into changes that may need to be made to change your culture.