Recently this Consultant walked into the library of a client school where I was helping this school review mission-based compensation, evaluation and benefit systems. I passed three senior teachers chatting at a table and I sat at the back of the room where no one noticed me.
A young new teacher came bouncing into the library after her class and announced with pride “I had the most fantastic class with the nicest group of girls!” One of the teachers in the library said: “If you stay here long enough you will come to dislike this place like we do.” That deflated the new teacher’s spirits and she left the library quickly.
That spring the Head, now in her third year, asked me to conduct exit interviews with those teachers not returning. When I asked this particular teacher from the library incident why she was leaving she said: “I like the Head and support her but if I publicly defend her, I will be isolated. If I join the “anti-Head” group in order to be accepted, I will be going against my own values. If I stay and become a loner, I will be unhappy professionally and socially. So, I chose the only other option, I resigned.”
That was a sad reflection of several common factors:
The good health of faculty and thus school cultures are often determined by the vocal minority of the most negative voices in the room. This may be as few as 5 out of 60 teachers. But this Consultant has learned over the years that even the most respected and positive teachers will not take on, except rarely, the negative voices in the faculty and staff room.
Unhealthy cultures exhibit passive-aggressive behavior; that is, unhappy individuals talk about what has offended them to everyone except the person directly responsible for the action. In other words, the concept of “presuming good intent” is lost in these cultures.
Two other stories may help demonstrate the power of engagement and intervention to improve a faculty culture rather than allowing unhappy folks to undermine it.
In one Shool with a unionized faculty, teachers had 3 classes and no requirements for extracurricular activities or advisory time with students. Yet they went on strike over workload. In another school in the same country, teachers taught 5 classes with 20 students in each and all had requirements for coaching two sports or other extras with no extra pay. Yet morale was very positive.
In the second School, I learned that high morale was due to two people: the long term highly respected Head and a beloved English Teacher. This Teacher tutored for free, assisted with college counseling without pay and in my interviews, he was the most frequently mentioned as the hallmark of the School’s healthy faculty culture. He called people on their occasional poor behavior quietly and supportively, but most of all he modeled outstanding student-centered kindness and a gracious tone toward his administrators and peers.
We held a workshop with all the teachers, administrators and board members who participated in the interview process where I summarized my findings and recommendations on salary system and benefits design and teacher evaluation models. I commented on one teacher who was a legacy culture bearer in this school and pointed to Jim. There was a brief silence followed by a standing ovation by everyone in the room for Jim. Tears came to Jim’s eyes.
In another school, a curriculum Leader followed a long term highly valued Head who had few formal systems in place and asked for very little teacher accountability. The new Head’s style was more analytical and a major shift, exactly what the Board sought in an effort to ensure quality teaching, effective evaluation and an improved internal and external perception of the School.
The new Head had inherited one of the most generous faculty pay systems in the world. Married couples were making almost $200K to $250K a year plus free tuition for children and free housing and home leave flights. Yet faculty morale was low. Few teachers left even though most did not like the culture and did not know the local language which was difficult to learn. Golden handcuffs were working against a healthy faculty culture because while people wanted to leave, they felt that they could not and give up this very generous pay package. While their disgruntlement with the new administration was obvious, faculty were not leaving and instead they formed a faculty association whose leader was the main antagonist to the Head.
The Board and Head hired this Consultant to assist in improving the faculty culture. We worked closely with the Head on his leadership style and tone. and tactics. Although he would never become a gregarious extrovert, he did have a self-deprecating sense of humor which worked in his favor. I met with the entire faculty and delivered my findings of what each group within the School could do to improve the culture, i.e., the role of the faculty, the administration, the Head and the Board. In that meeting, the Head cracked a joke about himself and that endeared him more to the faculty and garnered him more support.
The next year, the School offered a voluntary full pay out of one year’s salary and benefits paid over two years to all teachers who had been there 15 years and who were at least 45 years of age. No one took it. Two years later I returned and the School offered the package again, saying it would never come back a third time. This time 10 teachers took it, mostly mid-career male Teachers who were among the unhappiest in the culture and most at odds with the Head. Two eligible Teachers whom the Head wanted to stay were offered the same plan for two years down the road and a bonus if they stayed for those two years. They did.
When I returned the following year, the entire culture had changed. The faculty association was now more a social not a political group and the Head was far more highly regarded.
Stories from the trenches like these give me hope that with the right leadership and the right attitude, we can all presume good intent and
improve faculty cultures.