Tag Archives: school culture

A Simple Smile

I love this tweet:

Honestly, I could not agree more.

I am really trying to make going to the gym a priority every morning, and some days, it is harder than the others.  There is never a day that I regret going to the gym. Ever.  But that being said, it is sometimes hard to get going and push yourself.  Every morning, when I check-in, I always say “good morning” and smile. A lot of times though, I am sometimes ignored or brushed off.  It is probably the worst way to start my workout.  Being there is tough and to really push yourself can be exhausting, not just physically, but mentally.  Someone’s demeanour towards you can really make an impact on your day.

Then I think of this in the context of school.  I have seen schools where educators walk right by a student without even acknowledging them, and every time that happens, it kills me inside.  We can’t say how important are students are to us, and then follow it up by not acknowledging them.  This is not just educators to students, but educators to educators as well.  And what message does that send to kids?  If we don’t acknowledge each other, what lessons do students take from that, and apply to their interactions with peers?  Learning is hard and sometimes exhausting, so every moment we can make a difference and school a welcoming place, we have to take.

School culture is not as complicated as we make it.  If we want people to get better, they have to know they are already valued.  If they don’t know that, good luck.  This is something so simple, but for some it still seems way too hard.  A smile can make someone’s day, can be infectious, and have a tremendous impact on school culture.

3 Ways Social Media Can Improve School Culture

I was having a great conversation the other day with a good friend, and she was sharing how many boards aren’t really worried about “social media” because they are needing to actually focus on improving their culture first.  I thought a lot about what she said, and to be honest, if you cannot have conversations with people in your own organization, Twitter is going to be the last thing in your mind.  That being said, I have seen a lot of school organizations use social media to actually improve their culture significantly.  It is not the only way, but if used in powerful ways, it definitely can have an overall impact on your school or district.

Here are three ways that I have seen an impact (although I encourage you to look at some of the responses on this tweet when I asked the question).

1.  Increased Visibility

In large boards (especially), it is tough for directors, superintendents, principals, etc., to actually physically be in all places at all times.  Visibility is an important part of leadership, and I love when I see leaders in schools or in classrooms, but social media actually allows you to not only see leaders in a different light, but also see their thought process.  Through tweets, blog posts, and more(Superintendent Chris Smeaton is a great example of this, although I could have chosen from a large lists of administrators), you get to see visible thinking of leaders, but also other aspects of their lives that make them more “human”.  If you are a superintendent, and you walked into one of your schools, and many of your teachers had no idea who you are, isn’t that kind of a problem?  Social media, used effectively, can help increase this visibility.

2.  Increased Accessibility

Now being more connected can have both a positive and negative impact on a person.  If you are connected to your device 24/7, that might be great for your school, but bad for your personal life (and health).  We have to be able to shut off.  That being said, when teachers can tap into one another and learn from each other,it not only improves learning, but it also builds relationships.  I have watched in my own school division, the difference in the past few years with the increased use of social media, a greater connection between staff from different schools when seeing each other in person, because the accessibility to one another online doesn’t replace face-to-face interactions, but can enhance them.  Teachers that connected online, have ended up meeting face-to-face to plan EdCamps, Innovation Week, and talk about a whole host of other things to help improve learning.  The accessibility to not only ideas, but one another, improves learning and relationships.  They are not mutually exclusive.

3. A Flattened Organization

I really believe in the idea in schools that everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a learner, and that these roles are interchangeable throughout any and all days.  Watching great schools, I have seen superintendents learn from teachers, teachers learn from parents, principals learn from students, and any other combination you can think of within a school community.  As Chris Anderson would call this “crowd-accelerated innovation”, and it is so important to embrace this notion of learning from anyone and everyone, if we are going to improve the culture of our school’s.  When you work for an organization and you know that no matter what role you play, that your voice is valued, don’t you think that would have a significant impact on culture?

Concluding Thoughts

If you are looking at improve school culture, open learning is essential to our environments.  I don’t want to only know what the decisions are that are made, but about the people who are making them, and their thoughts behind these decisions.  That openness is crucial.  Only in an organization where voices are not only heard, but also valued, will you ever see significant improvements in school culture, and with the tools that we are provided in our world today, that pace of culture change can be significantly faster than it was without this same technology.

The Pain of Silence

I saw this tweet from Chris Wejr yesterday:

As I read the article, I thought about my own experiences being in situations that I felt uncomfortable.  I don’t use the term “bully” often, but I do remember situations that were tough to deal with as a teacher.  I wish I could say that I have never done anything wrong, but I have tried my best to treat others with respect and kindness, so I just want to bring awareness of things that could be tough on teachers.

You see, in my first year as a teacher, I moved to a new place away from my home, and struggled with the isolation.  Luckily, I came to a warm and welcoming place and was treated amazing. People knew that I was on my own, so they went out of their way to make home cooked meals, bring me fresh bread, and introduce me to a ton of people.  To be honest, I was treated pretty amazing.

One night though, I went out with some of the people on staff, and they started poking fun at me.  Not in a mean-spirited way, but in jest.  I was okay with it.  As I walked out of the door, continuously being poked, I made a comment back that was taken a lot more serious then I had meant it.  I won’t go into details, but I had unknowingly offended people and it was due to something that I did not know about the people I was spending time with. I walked home that night thinking nothing of my comment.

After weeks and months of being treated amazing, I came to the school on Monday and when I walked into the staff room it was like a ghost town.  Seemingly no one wanted to be within a foot of me, and even though only a few staff members were there, word had spread on how I screwed up, and it was held against to me.  Not everyone was mad at me (although it did feel that way) because they knew the comment was made in jest and a way to be accepted, but a strong contingent of staff would not even acknowledge my existence.

So as a first year teacher, what did I do?  I spent a ton of time in my classroom always seemingly having to work on things, and spent most of my breaks playing basketball with kids because I felt I had no option.  The silent treatment was extremely hurtful and I would spend a ton of my time at home extremely upset, wondering if I had made the right choice to move to this new town.  After about a year of this, it finally seemed to simmer down but I had already decided that it was not the place that I wanted to be.  Through it, several teachers ensured that they took me in, and one in particular made me feel like I was a part of her family.  I am still friends with her today.

Fast forward to a few years later, I had an issue with a coaching schedule and I complained about the other teacher in the process.  He had found out, came up to me, and told me, “If you have a problem with me, you come talk to me.  Do not say things behind my back.”  Although he was upset at that moment, he said his peace, and it was never brought up again.  That was it.  I am still close friends with him today, and I learned a lot from that situation.

You see, sometimes the worst thing to say to someone is nothing at all.  I had no idea that I had screwed up until a lot later because no one would talk to me and I had no clue.  Silence, when made explicit, can be a killer.  Words are not the only things that can hurt someone, and though I learned a lot from that situation years ago, that silence in my memory is still deafening.

3 Reasons Why Next Year Could Be Your Best

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Emiliano Horcada

Having a tiring end to the year after dealing with some tough personal events in my life, I have decided to take some time and enjoy things outside work.  Although people get on my case about blogging, I find writing to be soothing and a release for my mind that seems to be all over the place on most days.  As I sat on a plane heading to The Avett Brothers concert, I thought about the next year (year in teacher language is usually August until June in many countries) and what are some of the things that I am going to focus on that will make next year great.  Hopefully some of these thoughts will help others as well.

1. Your Experience Matters – Having a couple of years in my current position without having anyone to follow or no template on what needed to be done, I constantly wondered if I was on the right track. It felt like my first year of teaching where I constantly questioned how I was doing.  A few years in, I feel a lot more comfortable.

That being said, being able to connect with people within my organization and outside through a PLN has taught me that I am not solely on my experience, but if I am willing to connect with teachers through social media, I have access to thousands of years experience that I don’t have myself.  New teachers have an opportunity that I never did as a teacher starting off if they are willing to take the time to connect.  Tapping into this experience is invaluable for a teacher in year 1 or year 35, you just have to make the effort.

2. You are a Learner First, Teacher Second – The notion of doing the same thing for 30 years has always terrified me.  I remember distinctly saying that I would never last 30 years in the profession because I would be too bored teaching the same thing over and over again.  In the past few years however, I have really focused on what I am learning and what I am trying in my job and with this focus, I have a renewed passion for the profession.

I have seen this renewed passion with others first and it has led to their own sense of passion for the profession.  In one article, the author states the following:

“I see myself as a learner first, thus I create my classes with learners, not for them ….”

I remember the reason I loved school so much as a student and it was that constant discovery and growth that you get from the process.  Teachers that focus on this will truly ensure that no day looks the same.  That constant growth could be quite invigorating.

3. Culture Starts With You – I remember having the same conversation with a friend that was frustrated about her situation and felt her boss could do so much better.  The problem was that no matter who the boss was, she always had the same issue.  I would talk with her and say, “You can’t control what other people do, only yourself.  What are you going to do differently to make your situation better?”  We have to remember that we always have options in what we do, and that if we want the environment around us to get better, it starts with us as individuals.

I recently talked about this notion and shared this powerful quote from Jamie Notter’s blog:

We all create the culture we’re in. Our actions, our words, even our thoughts. People in leadership roles often have the opportunity to leverage those words, thoughts, and actions, due to the attention they get, but we all are creating the culture every day. Be intentional about it. Be clear about what is valued and what drives success. And choose to behave consistently with that understanding, even if that feels like the harder choice in the moment.

Taking ownership of that culture and embodying what you want to see in others, no matter the position, can be the step that changes an entire culture.  It always start somewhere and with someone.  Is it you?

Many of these things that I have shared are things that people do already, but sometimes just realizing that and making it a focus when we walk into the door at the beginning of the year helps to focus on what we want the year to be like.

What are some of the things that you are going to focus on next year?

Where Culture Starts

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Andrew Yee

You often hear how it is the “leader’s” responsibility to help create the culture of a school.  Leader, in this case, is often referring to a principal, superintendent, administrator, etc., and although they do have a significant role in establishing this culture, it is everyone’s responsibility.  I have heard teachers become frustrated with others on staff, yet when you work with them to address others, often they are fearful of saying something to a colleague.  To me, silence is consensus.

I read this post from Jamie Notter this morning and he shared a video from the Australian Army Chief talking about the issue of sexual harassment in their military.  The Chief shared this short but powerful quote:

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Notter followed up with some of his own thoughts:

We all create the culture we’re in. Our actions, our words, even our thoughts. People in leadership roles often have the opportunity to leverage those words, thoughts, and actions, due to the attention they get, but we all are creating the culture every day. Be intentional about it. Be clear about what is valued and what drives success. And choose to behave consistently with that understanding, even if that feels like the harder choice in the moment.

I have always believed that the first place we always need to look is at ourselves before we starting talking about the deficiencies of others.  I have been guilty of this as I assume many of you are that are reading this post, but we still have to make a concerted effort to look inward first.

Someone said that when we point one finger at someone else, we have three pointing back at ourselves (who knows what your thumb is doing!).  Culture is something that starts with individuals before it becomes the norm.

Avoiding the Staff Lounge?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Je suis Samuel

I recently read an interesting article on the “Three Do’s and Dont’s of Transformative Teacher Leadership” and although there are some great points to this piece, one stuck out to me as way off:

Don’t hang out too long in the Teachers’ Lounge (if at all)

Let’s be honest: the teachers’ lounge is a sacred space in a school where teachers and other staff vent their frustrations about what happens in and around the school. While we teachers need a space like that for our mental health, it can also weigh people down. For a teacher leader, especially one who needs to help transform, the teachers’ lounge can often hold such a leader back, especially if he or she listens too often to the gossip and complaints. Plus, it’s easy to get pulled into the chatter, which could spell disaster for teacher-administrator relationships if the teacher leader is part of that.

The author then goes on to list another “don’t” which, in my mind, contradicted the above:

Don’t: Isolate Yourself from the Rest of the School

After a while, we may get huge tasks that occupy large amounts of our time, but the worst thing we can do as teacher leaders is to disconnect ourselves from the rest of the school community. When we get certain rooms or spaces all to ourselves, this tempts us to work on our own so that we can get our task done in complete silence. Yet it also allows us to hide from the rest of the school. We ought to stay connected to the rest of the school, understanding the school culture and, ultimately, as many students as possible within our realms.


On one hand it is saying that a space in a school is a place for a toxic culture so avoid it, but on the other hand it is saying staying connected with the school community.  So what if the school community is in the toxic staff lounge? Do we ignore “these” people?

It is not that I disagree that in some schools, staff lounges can be place where teachers complain about whatever, whether that be students, administrators, parents, even other teachers, but does it have to be that place?  Does a place like that even have to exist?

I know that I have been in schools where this existed and I had this notion that I would simply avoid it, but then I noticed that many “positive” people still go to those rooms, so what will happen to them?  Let’s not kid ourselves, every school has a culture, it is whether that culture is positive or negative that is to be determined.  Eventually that culture consumes people in one way or the other and when it is positive, it can change people’s mindsets to do great things, but when it is negative, it could eventually suck the life out of people or have those bright spots choose to leave altogether.  Ignoring the “negativity” in the lounge is not something that will make it go away; it is simply ignoring a problem.

So instead of avoiding that culture in a previous role, I decided to face it head on.  I remember going there and trying to joke, keep the mood upbeat, and actually calling out anyone that started to talk negatively.  The “lounge” was a place meant for colleagues to come together, so why not make that experience positive?  When the negative talk started with anyone, I would actually say, “this is not the place for the conversation but feel free to come talk to me if you need some help.”  Eventually the staff lounge started to be a place that people felt more comfortable to come as teachers don’t come into the profession to complain about it.  They come to make a difference.

I will tell you straight up that this was not an easy thing to do.  Ignoring it is.  Actually it is really easy, although ignoring it can eventually wear you down because it creates an “us vs. them” culture, which is a toxic.  But here’s the thing…leadership is not an easy job and sometimes you have to make tough decisions and do things that put you out of your comfort zone for the good of the culture.  True leadership is about others, not about yourself.

Avoiding the “staff lounge” might be good for you, but is it good for the school?

One of those days

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Mr. Kris

I love my job.  I have to start my post with that.  Some days (and sometimes weeks) it does seem like a full moon and you are not really sure what is going on.  Although these days are less and less, today felt like that.  Admittedly, I think I have found a way to have less of “those days”.

Reading Michelle Baldwin’s post on how she wanted to make amends for her teaching inadequacies of the past, I reflected on one of my biggest weaknesses today; holding a grudge.

Earlier in my career, when a student would have done something wrong, I would say “tomorrow is a new day”, but I would not show that belief in my actions towards the offender.  As I grew as an educator, I learned that getting upset about the actions of students was something that I would no longer take ownership for.  I knew that if I continued to do this, my teaching career would either end early or be continuously miserable.  I needed to make a change.

As the principal of my school, I deal with all types of things.  I knew that how I dealt with kids would set the tone for how our entire staff dealt with students.  Now, not only do I let things go when students make mistakes, I actually go out of my way to spend some time to ensure the student knows that I care for them as well.  It lets them know that no matter what mistake they made, I am still going to do my best to care for them.  When I have screwed up as an adult, simply returning the next day does not ease my mind around those I work with.  I want to know that I have not lost any worth in my colleagues’ eyes.  This is a normal reaction of most people.  As the adults in the building, we have to not only give kids a new start, but we should go that extra mile to let our students know that we still care for them.

Even when it is one of those days, we still need to show we care about the students that messed up.  I believe that the more we do this, “those” days will start to be less and less.

Their First 15 Minutes; Identity Day

As June goes in schools, it is an extremely busy month.  I have been in schools where we are just trying to make it to the end, but 5 school days from being over, I was lucky enough to be a part of one of the most memorable days in my teaching career.  Forest Green hosted it’s first “Identity Day” and it was a tremendous success.  This was from the hard work and culminating effort from the ENTIRE school community but was led by my fabulous Assistant Principal, Cheryl Johnson.  This was all her idea and she had put in a lot of work ahead of time to ensure the success of the event.  She not only came with up with the idea, but she brought everyone together which led to an amazing day.

The Idea

The thought behind Identity Day was that every single student and staff member would share something that they were passionate about and create some type of display or presentation to show this interest.  This would be similar to a science fair, but it was specific to the interests of each individual.  This was done for all grades from 1-6 and all staff.  Although there was certain criteria that was expected to be met for this day, there were no marks for the projects.  It was all about learning about other people in the school, while also learning about yourself.  Basically, you could share anything in any way you wanted.

The Process

Since it was the first year of this school-wide initiative, our Assistant Principal went around with each class and discussed the project several months ahead of time.  The process was simple; you were to collect items to show one thing that you were passionate about and write a short paragraph that said what it is you were sharing and why you were sharing it.  This made it simple enough that all ages could do it, but also ensured that it was powerful for all students.

In our school today, we started the day by having all students prepare their projects for display for the first hour of school.  After that, the entire school went through each classroom from youngest to oldest.  This ensured that each class would have an opportunity to look at each student’s display.  Teachers and Educational Assistants each had their own display in their homeroom.  I was lucky enough to see EVERY SINGLE DISPLAY during this day.  There was even a time when office staff had their displays set up and shared them for students to look at (I did mine on the love of the Lakers).

The Benefits

Through this day, I learned so much about our students and our staff.  I already discussed one AMAZING student who elicited a very emotional response from myself and others with her display. I did not know that we have a grade 2 girl who is a provincial champ BMX racer and I never even knew this!  We had a staff member who shared her passion and love for her grandparents (this was a touching display).  I was also proud to see many students sharing their pride in their own heritage.  One student shared their hope to become an inventor and built his own catapult project to show his talent in this area.  Another student created a “prezi” on his love of hockey (I showed him how to do this in 1 minute and he created it on his own).  I felt that with every display, I was connecting more with each person in the building and was thinking that we need to do this WAY earlier in the year.

Although I know some parents helped their students plan their display, I believe that this was great! Parents got to work with their children on their passion while connecting their learning from home to school.  Ultimately each child had to stand by their own display and present.

Another reason I loved this project was because it built community.  We had parents, staff, and students all connecting with one another in ways that I have never seen before.  I saw so many students show a different side and one parent commented to me, “I have seen these kids at my house several times and I was blown away by what I DIDN’T know about them”.  One teacher brought in her record player and shared her love of music.  Although I knew she loved music, seeing how passionate she was about it was inspiring.

This was their (first) 15 minutes of fame and each child was SO proud to share what they loved.  I was so proud of how each student glowed with what they were sharing.  I was also proud of how they listened and learned about other students’ passions as well.  This project was relevant to them and had nothing to do with marks.  It was just about their passions.  This has shown me that we need to continue work on tapping into students’ passions in the classroom and let them develop their leadership skills.

I want to commend my staff for not only facilitating such a great day but for also sharing personal pieces of themselves. Thanks to all the students did a tremendous job with their displays; I learned so much about each one of you.

It was an amazing day and I hope that you can do the same in your school communities.

(If you have any questions about this day, please do not hesitate to ask!)

Forest Green Identity Day on PhotoPeach