Improving Faculty Cultures: Touching The Heart And Soul Of Schools

Understanding Faculty And School Cultures
August 1, 2015
Unhealthy School Climate: Common But Seldom Improved
August 1, 2015
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Improving Faculty Cultures: Touching The Heart And Soul Of Schools

An independent school unionized recently because the faculty was fearful of losing some cherished rights and benefits that new leadership had questioned. The benefits included teaching only three courses, coming and going with no requirement to check in or out in a day school setting, and having no required “extras” or extra curricular assignments. Yet in another school, teachers with six courses, teaching almost 100 students a day and with unpaid required coaching assignments conveyed a great sense of contentment, and confidence in the leadership of the school. What accounts for the differences? School culture.

School culture is a product of past history, successes and failures, faculty “lore” about real or perceived mistreatment at the hands of the board or administration, and of having little “voice” in decision making that affects them.

Throughout the world, Littleford & Associates works with schools to help support “moral” faculty cultures in healing old wounds and building new coalitions for positive change. The ultimate beneficiaries of an improvement in faculty morale are the children in our schools.

Many independent and international schools with outstanding, even “world class” reputations for excellence, can suffer from unhealthy and seriously dysfunctional faculty cultures. Some teachers in our schools are bitterly disappointed about the outcome of their careers and complain frequently about low salaries, high workload, poor administrative leadership, and too little time to teach effectively, perfect their craft and attend to their families.

In one school, the new head was asked to take on some tough tightening of the budget and to improve student boarding life. His decisions caused great consternation in the ranks of teachers who began to signal to students their serious unhappiness about the new administration. Over a period of three years, the head’s house on campus was vandalized several times by students feeling they were attacking the symbol of teacher discontent. Eventually the teachers crossed “boundaries” to alumni trustees and successfully ousted the head. The culture was poisoned for some time in that many teachers did not trust the administration, and the new administration had a long way to go to try to reestablish a professional relationship with the faculty.

Independent school faculty cultures are often ones where we speak of “collaboration” and “collegiality”. Yet in such small intimate settings, when one person offends another rather than talking about that perceived offense directly with the person who caused it, the offended party often talks to everyone else BUT the offending party. Body language, avoidance behavior, rumor, gossip and innuendo, and a range of other passive/aggressive behaviors show up in independent school cultures. A good time to observe these behaviors is when the head of school is speaking in an all school faculty meeting.

Many teachers whom this consultant has interviewed in such cultures will respond that faculty anger or disaffection does not affect the students. Yet this statement seems naïve.

It takes only five seriously unhappy teachers in a faculty of fifty to undermine a positive culture. Lower school cultures tend to be more upbeat than those of middle schools and upper schools. Middle school faculty cultures are usually more positive than those of upper schools. This may be related to the focus of elementary teachers on process and collaboration versus the more historic departmentalized focus of secondary school teachers on content, subject matter and preparation for the rigors of testing and entrance to college. While an unhappy faculty can be sex blind, more of the disaffected teachers seem to be mid career males in upper schools, and sometimes more specifically, those with a humanities training in the history and English departments and sometimes in the science department. Perhaps this is due in part to closed avenues for promotion for many teachers in mid career and the analytical training and questioning nature of teachers in these departments.

Teachers are NOT to blame for all this. Management IS. Why? Independent school managers are not oblivious to the extent of faculty unhappiness in some schools and often avoid addressing it. It is easier and less confrontational to “lay low” with an angry faculty culture than to take the risks associated with trying to improve it. In addition, heads are never sure if it is even possible to make such cultures more positive, or if tackling the issue is worth the risk.

Teachers who spread negative contagious behavior, who engage consistently in sarcastic putdowns of students and fellow teachers, attract attention. That reinforces their behavior. This occurs even though such remarks are basically intended to hurt and may reflect a deep insecurity on the part of those using these tactics. Why do other teachers not confront such behavior?

In interviewing over 35,000 teachers personally and confidentially in the past 20 years, this consultant has found that many want the administration to point up the immorality of such behavior and the damage done by those who practice it. The lack of leadership by the administration makes teachers loath to stand up and stand out to object to anti administration, anti colleague language and political infighting.

The idea of “presuming good intent” is a strong formula for urging teachers and administrators to go to the source of their irritation and rather than talking to everyone else but the apparently offending party.

On the other side of the ledger a recent visit to an independent school of 1500 students led this consultant to a culture of high praise for the head and of teachers for each other as colleagues. In interviewing over 30 teachers in this school, not one gave the head lower than the highest marks for performance and empathy, for listening and leading. However, in listening over four days, I learned that this upbeat culture was the result not only of a thoughtful, deliberate and warm head of school whose style was both “soft” and “firm.” It also resulted from the legacy and modeling of a senior member of the faculty who was in the high school English department. This man was gentle, kind, loyal and had been with the school 30 years. Graduates often came back to reconnect with him. Rather than basking in his own ego, he spoke with admiration of his colleagues and their work and of the environment that the Head of school had provided for him and his fellow teachers.

He was low key, soft spoken, and self effacing. I came away from this interview feeling this man was a core reason for the affirming nature of the entire faculty culture as EVERY teacher in the interview process, when asked what makes a great teacher at this school, referred to this gentleman by name or description.

At the faculty workshop later in the week, I concluded with a statement about the rarity of confluence of forces in this school. A positive faculty culture seemed to a great extent to be a reflection of a warm yet firm head combined with a teacher who seemed to be the role model in his quality of teaching, character, counseling and the genuine humility of his demeanor and mode of speaking. This teacher was sitting in the front row. He seemed truly not to know to whom I was referring until I mentioned his name.

The faculty stood up as one and gave him a prolonged standing ovation. He sat there with his eyes brimming with tears. Again, this amazing school culture was found in a large school. The workload was not light and was not an issue. It was the warmth of the professional attitude of teachers toward administration and vice versa that set the high morale and resulted in a positive faculty culture.

At another recent client school, faculty culture has turned negative after the arrival of a new head who was charged with implementing an aggressive strategic plan. The school is a fine one with a great history. Teachers have been comfortable in a culture that had drifted from parent and board expectations. A more results oriented board wanted some tangible measures by which to assess outcomes and assure parents of quality. The prior head may not have been comfortable with these new goals and the tactics to achieve them and left. The new head entered with experience but a totally different leadership style. He had insufficient time to develop political capital or a full understanding of the School’s history and culture before sending out signals about changing it.

The tension within the faculty has grown and the rumblings of discontent have been evident. The head took the encouraging and courageous step of asking for outside assistance with managing change within this setting and the board did as well with an eye to reviewing their own board governance practices, which are in fact, quite strong.

At a meeting at the end of the week following some 20 interviews of mainly teachers but a few administrators and board members, those interviewed met for a workshop and feedback session. There were 18 suggested items on which the head and his management team might work, and 25 on which the faculty individually and collectively might focus. At end the end of the meeting the head stood up to acknowledge the comments, even the criticism, and conveyed the vulnerability and sense of isolation that all heads can feel while acknowledging a genuine sense of commitment to do the right thing and meet the school’s needs. His sincerity was palpable.

At that moment, the most senior and respected member of the faculty stood up. He turned to look at his peers and said: “I admit that I have been guilty of saying things negative and critical and engaging in gossip and spreading rumors. This is wrong and I will not do this any longer. I pledge my support to help this school heal as I have a deep love and commitment to this place.” There was total silence followed by a burst of sustained applause. A pregnant moment: an opportunity had presented itself.

Another client and a wonderful and open minded head of school recently wrote me:

“When I reflect on all the internal and external evaluations and the accreditation visits and the emphasis schools place on professional development, none of these have touched the heart and soul of our school in such a significant and positive way… this work is invaluable and can increase the head’s longevity and effectiveness. If a school is interested in:

  • successful transition for a new head
  • developing a culture of appreciation
  • improving faculty morale
  • and/or creating a professional learning community
  • Then I highly recommend this process.”

This school is a day school where a culture of negativity had crept into daily conversation, not only about the school or head but when teachers were talking about each other.

The head further wrote:

“When you provided a summary to twenty three participants, everyone was shocked to see the staff room gossip anonymously recorded on the flipcharts. You revealed negative behavior, but more importantly identified a process for school improvement and ignited a passion for positive change in all our human relationships.”

Following this workshop, I asked each teacher to write down confidentially a comment or two of what each thought he or she could contribute to a more positive faculty culture. Among the comments made anonymously, the most frequent one was along these lines: “I now know what I need to do personally to make this a better place for me and others who work and learn here. I will try to change my behavior.”

More important than the work of this consultant, was the work of the head in his follow up activities which have been prodigious and immediate.

The head asked the workshop task force to work together first and then to report back to the entire faculty and board. He assigned individual workshop attendees specific roles. The workshop group first met to outline their own strategies and goals and to explain the changes they had experienced through the interviews and workshop. Their next step was to attempt to engage the entire faculty in the dialogue and to do so with an open mind.

This process has not been easy. The faculty members have been extraordinarily professional. A few teachers saw clearly how others might characterize their unhealthy and “put down” behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious. Several of these teachers deserve credit for being introspective and trying to change their own core behavior patterns. Even if one or two individuals may not change, there has already been a “lightening up” and a softening of negative responses.

Such changes do not occur overnight. Moving away from a school climate where unhappy voices dominate and recruiting new, positive teachers into that culture takes at least three years. But the school described here has begun this process with courage and integrity and the support of the faculty and board. The jury is yet out but the initial signals are very positive, even uplifting.

Our firm has worked with a number of schools world wide that have taken on this kind of pro active mode to build healthier school cultures that ultimately benefit all who work and learn in these settings. However, the school described above is remarkable in the creativity and speed with which this head, this board and this faculty have responded.

This head’s initiative and leadership inspired the workshop and has motivated the follow up process. Teachers and other staff have also taken up the challenge and have begun to run with it enthusiastically and courageously. This can happen anywhere where the leadership is willing to examine an unhealthy faculty culture and turn it around. A positive and healthy faculty and school culture does touch the heart and soul of a school and supports its mission.

John Littleford
Senior Partner