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Understanding Faculty And School Cultures

Not long ago, I was invited to conduct a workshop on teacher evaluation. The first to enter the room was an experienced teacher. He sat in the last row, and did not pick up a name tag. I walked over to meet him, hand outstretched, and introduced myself. “I see that you do not have a name tag”, I said. His response was “I know my own name.” I said, “Yes, but I do not.” His reply: “That’s your problem, isn’t it?”

I had never met this gentleman before. Clearly, he was angry and projecting his anger onto me.

  1. The Profile of a Teacher: Caregivers not Risk Takers

    Teachers tend to resist change, and hold administrations responsible for the discomfort that accompanies change. The gentleman described above was upset about the arrival of a new head who had spoken of a desire to create a process of teacher evaluation at a school where none had existed in anyone’s recent memory. The teacher was taking out his anger at the head, and his fear about change, on the consultant.

    Teachers may not confront quickly or directly the source of their irritation or anger. That source may be an individual or a policy. Instead, that anger and fear may be sublimated and will come out at a later time in other forms. Those forms take many guises. Teachers may tell everyone else about the reason that they are upset, but they may not tell the person, often an administrator, who made them feel that way.

    In the past 15 years, I have interviewed over 20,000 teachers confidentially on the subject of teacher compensation. Over 80% of them indicated they were not “risk takers” but care givers. This was reflected in that most did not know their exact salary or even an approximate number for the value of their retirement asset. They wanted predictability in their future earning power so they would not have to worry about money every year.

    Often what lies beneath or provokes a compensation discussion are teachers’ feelings of unhappiness about their work environment or climate.

  2. Hiring Faculty: Credentials and Experience Are Not the Only Criteria

    In this consultant’s experience, heads must hire teachers carefully to ensure a political, demographic balance of personal styles, behaviors, career level and attitude. Several years ago, I was retained by a board chair whose head was on sabbatical.

    The Board Chair had learned that a representative of the state teachers’ association had been invited on campus to speak to the teachers, in a move to “organize” a union. The Chair asked me to determine why such an invitation was issued and to do so before any formal actions or petitions were undertaken.

    In interviewing a cross section of this faculty, several patterns were evident:

    1. Many of the teachers were married to other teachers on campus, and the anger of one spouse affected and spurred on the anger of the other. Most all lived on campus and that anger festered nightly in dining room conversation.
    2. Most of the angriest teachers were mid career, male, history and English teachers.
    3. These men were unhappy at not having had promotional opportunities into management. They were also dissatisfied, and feeling inadequate, some about having selected a teaching career in the first place. They had lost their earlier youthful zeal due to the low status and low pay realized by mid career teachers.
    4. The teachers felt that they were “stuck” with few, if any, options in their current positions.

    All of these forces combined to galvanize these men into an angry leadership group. The head’s one semester sabbatical created a power vacuum into which this group quickly moved. This pattern, though absent an invitation to organize a union, is common in independent schools, and any disaffected faction of teachers can fall into a similar pattern of behavior.

    Heads need to be careful that in hiring new teachers, the focus not be primarily on teaching credentials, or teaching experience. Rather, the focus should be on the following: the teacher’s attitude; willingness to learn and grow; the ability to hear criticism as well as praise; and the “mix” of the department into which this new teacher is being hired. The addition should add greater, not less, emotional “health” to the department. Orienting, guiding, counseling and mentoring teachers who are new to teaching and new to the school are critical to a healthy faculty culture.

  3. The Correlation Between Teacher Attitudes and School Cultures

    School cultures are determined mainly by teachers and their attitudes. In working with over 1200 international and US independent schools in the past 15 years, it is obvious to me that a great many have teaching and faculty cultures that are not “well” in that there is a pervasive, underlying cynicism or criticism in the culture.

    Recently, in one well known and highly respected girls’ school, a new teacher bounced into the faculty room and expressed satisfaction at having chosen this school. One of the older teachers in the room responded, “Well, stay here long enough, and you will come to dislike the place like the rest of us.”

    She viewed her choices as the following: join the “negative contagious” behavior, in which she did not believe; be the “Polyanna”, positive voice about the head and school, a position for which she felt she lacked sufficient stamina and experience; or withdraw from faculty contact and operate independently, a position she felt would deny her the collegiality she wanted and needed. The teacher later told me she would not be returning the following year.

    School heads spend a huge amount of time interviewing teachers, checking resumes, and calling references. Seldom do they really try to understand the individual personality and background of the potential recruit and how that teacher’s personal style, background and experiences will intersect with, affect and be affected by the particular department or division of the school in which they will work.

    Recently I interviewed a cross section of teachers on the topic of teacher culture, compensation and evaluation. This was a large school with more than one campus, where one might expect to find disaffection, fear of change and a faculty room where criticism of the “remote” administration and problems about “communication” might be the daily bread of conversation. It was not.

    In this particular school, the head was outstanding in terms of earning faculty respect and trust. The size of the School did not diminish the respect for the head. There seemed to be NO poisonous contagious behavior. Teachers spoke of an administration that cared about them, pushed them, challenged them, but trusted them and helped them to grow into better teachers.

    There was an openness to change, not a fear of it, among the teachers. The circumstances of this school included a head who had risen from within the ranks and had been head for some years now. However, those factors alone could not account for the “intimacy” and trust of the relationship. The head was praised for good listening skills, warmth, openness and a staunch ability to speak up for the needs of the faculty. The head articulated these needs effectively to the board. The head stressed the need for everyone to be a part of a “community of learners.”

    This same sense of trust and respect can be found in many of our client schools, with a similar affection for the heads and a similar sense of “can do” optimism and openness among the faculty. What distinguishes all of these schools is that the heads are “analytical” in their style. They are predictable and “even.” These qualities create within the culture of sense of comfort, collegiality, and trust.

  4. How Do Healthy Faculty and School Cultures Develop?

    Healthy faculty (and thus “school”) cultures seem to develop under these circumstances:

    1. The school has a recent history and culture of “open” communication, honest dialogue and a willingness on the part of teachers to take up a grievance or concern forthrightly with one or more administrative leaders.
    2. There is a sense that teachers are valued in the School.
    3. The teachers themselves seem to reflect less “anger” of a personal or professional nature.
    4. A focus on what is genuinely good for children dominates the conversation.
    5. Heads at these schools know the teachers and their families and support them personally and professionally whenever needed and whenever possible.
    6. Heads at these schools are strong leaders, with high expectations. Teachers come to see these higher standards as a sign of pride and community accomplishment.
    7. The heads are available to talk, to listen and to think through a response rather than to respond too quickly.
    8. Healthy school cultures are ones where those who do not belong, or who undercut and damage the culture, are either confronted and change, OR they are counseled out or not rehired. This is the “tough” face to the head who normally expresses the “soft” side.
    9. Healthy school cultures are ones where the head is not regarded as a politician but, in reality, is a very adept one.

    Healthy school cultures emanate from healthy faculty cultures and these in turn emanate from leadership practices and styles.

John Littleford, Senior Partner

Littleford & Associates

John Littleford
Senior Partner