Unhealthy School Climate: Common But Seldom Improved

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Unhealthy School Climate: Common But Seldom Improved

In a recent exchange of e mails among school heads, there was much talk about, and not many congratulations for a Head who was taking over a School with a history of a troubled and unhealthy faculty culture.

This School is not in financial distress and its Board is reasonably stable. But its union’s defense of inappropriate teacher behavior and the consistent, anti-administrative tone of its faculty toward any Head’s attempt at assertive leadership lead to several interesting questions: Should anything be done to tackle this negative atmosphere? What can be done to make this School healthier? How aware are parents and students of the underlying anger in the culture and the impact upon them?

More heads find more negativity within their faculty cultures than they will admit. The effect may not be as damaging as in the School noted above, which is an extreme example, but an adversarial faculty culture is quite common. This can occur in even the most prominent, major boarding schools in the US to some of the smallest day schools and international schools. Most heads see tackling the “climate” issue as difficult, if not downright risky.

All heads in these situations ask themselves: how long would it take me to lead an effort that would turn around a negative school culture? New heads wonder if they should skirt the problem, attempt to stay removed from and above the visceral anger of some faculty subgroups, and hope that this feeling will not be aimed directly at them? If a head does attempt to tackle the issue, will he/she in all likelihood fail and jeopardize his/her job in the process (unless the head has amassed a great deal of political capital over the years with key constituents)? Furthermore, in some parts of the world, labor laws make it nearly impossible for management to remove a teacher who may perform in the classroom but whose demeanor outside of the classroom adversely affects faculty morale. Thus, many leaders may feel that one just has to wait for the angry teachers to retire and hope that by outlasting them, the situation will improve. Over the years this Consultant has witnessed that resigned conclusion many times.

This Consultant does not believe that either teachers or administrators bear the sole responsibility for this situation. The majority of teachers are passionate about their profession but are susceptible to the influence of those who openly and frequently voice hostility or resentment about the head or the administration overall.

Angry teacher cultures sadly tend to breed a new generation of more of the same. The more senior disgruntled cohort often recruits the younger, more na�ve and upbeat teachers into the culture of this anti administrative sentiment. It becomes self perpetuating.

Unfortunately, in some schools the anger in the faculty culture seeps down into the ranks of students and parents. They perceive it in the demeanor of teachers when they speak about their administration; or they hear it in the tone of faculty banter in the hallways or when teachers talk about upper level decisions in the presence of students. Sometimes, parents even leave the school if this behavior becomes extreme, but school leaders never know the real reason why they left.

I. Is This YOUR School?

It is not professionally appealing to admit that the school one leads has a very unhealthy, if not almost nasty, faculty culture. Yet this Consultant has witnessed it in hundreds of schools and heard about it worldwide in hundreds of others. These are not unsolvable problems. But they are complex, usually have a long “tail”, and usually involve a small coterie of very vocal teachers who carry on this adversarial tradition.

What leads to unhealthy faculty cultures?

The wrong or unhealthy mix of the faculty, i.e., the demographics: An unfortunate and unplanned set of hiring practices may have brought together individuals from the same backgrounds or with complaining personalities who form distinctive cliques that dominant the faculty lounge or other areas where teachers gather. Heads are only too aware of the body language of such teachers in school wide meetings: the folded arms and the rolling eyes are all too familiar.

“Demographics” could mean that there is not a healthy range of age, gender, career or family status, or overall balance in the faculty. Perhaps a cadre of like minded individuals in the same career group has decided it is unhappy and then conveys that attitude consistently. Even if working conditions and pay may be excellent, these cliques can dominate faculty cultures and demoralize even the most positive and energetic new teachers. Democracy, transparency and faculty “voice” become the key words for unhappy teachers who want more influence and power but ironically already have too much of it.

The hiring practices over the years: Hiring for credentials and experience alone can be very detrimental to the long term health of school cultures. School heads should be particularly vigilant about hiring for “attitude”. Heads or other senior administrators, however, tend not to pay much attention to hiring for attitude except perhaps in very good boarding schools where the hiring policies must include a careful analysis of the likely chemistry between students and teachers in a residential context and the willingness to go that extra mile.

Rarely, schools will subject top applicants to a psychological evaluation or battery of tests to assess not technical competence, but appropriate emotional “fit” with the school’s culture. This is mission appropriate hiring, but it seldom happens.

This Consultant has had many heads describe to him the new crop of positive teachers they have hired and then in interviewing them individually on site for a consulting assignment, the consultant finds that some carry baggage of deep seated mistrust of administration, even the one that just hired them. According to this Consultant’s experience, the most disenfranchised teachers typically will be found more often in the high school; more will be male; more will be mid career to senior teachers; and more will be in the history and English departments (and maybe science).

The turnover of administration and resulting power vacuums: The more often the head of school and division heads/principals depart, the more often power vacuums are created. Teachers fill those, rapidly. The head and the principals/division heads are thus left with less influence and authority, and it takes longer for new ones to establish themselves and even the smallest changes may be met with resistance. Teachers can interpret proposed changes to the status quo as a lack of attention to the “faculty voice”, which may have become inappropriately powerful because of faculty cynicism over leadership turnover and inconsistency.

Leadership turnover is particularly dangerous to school culture when it has occurred largely as a result of input from faculty factions. When boards misbehave and fire a head due to parent pressure prompted by teachers or direct teacher pressure, then the faculty is empowered. They may think: “Why can’t we do this to the next guy, if we succeeded in running the current one out of town?”

To be fair to teachers, when leadership turnover occurs, new leaders often undertake too many initiatives too quickly and in the international context where head tenure tends to be shorter, MUCH too quickly. Teachers actually may come to hope that the leadership will turn over again so that they do not have to undertake the new initiatives. And then when THOSE leaders leave, and the new ones come in with THEIR new plans and ideas, the teachers’ cynicism is reinforced. Teachers often feel then that their failure to embrace earlier changes was the correct, easier strategy.

Head turnover, often a function of board turnover, almost always creates these risky power vacuums. There is another common and unfortunate consequence of power vacuums: faculty turns instead to parents, building relationships with them that can be overly cozy and sometimes inappropriate.

Perceived unfairness: This represents everything from a teacher who may have been terminated or counseled out some years ago, to a disciplinary matter where the teachers feel that the head favored the parents or did not take a tough moral stand. Whatever the specifics, it resonates with teachers as an indication of an unfair administration that cannot be trusted.

The dismissal or departure of a teacher creates additional anxiety and suspicion in the culture. In the US, and in “right to work” states, where teachers can be dismissed more easily than in Europe, even one or two dismissals or contract non renewals in a year out of a teaching staff of 180 can result in frequent faculty conversation about job insecurity. Teachers want to know which colleagues are leaving and why, even though heads cannot offer a public explanation. Where the head is long term and beloved, the effect upon morale may be minimal, but where the head/director is newer and has much less political capital, every departure of a teacher can lead to gossip harmful to the culture.

Some years ago when interviewing teachers on an faculty compensation consulting assignment, fifteen teachers told this consultant that twelve years before the Board had cut salaries by 10% in a cost reduction move and that the teachers had never regained that lost ground. Later, the Head revealed that none of the fifteen teachers with whom this consultant had spoken had been there at that time! This was the proverbial “pebble in a barrel” circulating around that environment and undermining the leadership for years.

Of course, teachers do love their administrators as well. In many schools teachers will wax enthusiastic about a particular division head or a current or former school head. But sometimes that very sense of adoration of an administration only makes it more difficult for the succeeding or current one. Sometimes a head or team will “give away the store” in an effort to settle issues with a teacher’s union or other organized faculty group, thus preserving his or their reputation and position. However, the unfortunate successors are saddled with trying to roll back concessions that may be unsustainable in the long run.

Changing workload, schedules or curriculum: School cultures are resistant to change and teachers are not change agents. School leaders must manage change and transition carefully. While some teachers invite and explore every new curriculum initiative, the majority has settled into a comfortable pattern. Too much change reflects “fads” in the minds of teachers, and they are not necessarily wrong.

The presence of formal unions, informal faculty councils, or advisory committees whose leadership has a strong power base: Many teacher groups in Western Europe, for example, participate in unions, works councils and the like. In theory these organizations are meant to ensure proper consultation between management and teachers on a range of issues. But often over time the rights and flexibility of management become dramatically compromised as the demands of unhappy teachers predominate, ranging from more from days off, more stipends and release time to a say in the assignment of duties, etc.

In these situations, the tone of the school has become adversarial and management is hampered in its ability to effect meaningful and needed change. However, this does not have to be the case. There are examples where creative leaders have engaged these councils or unions in productive dialogue and built strong and trusting relationships with the leadership. This requires patience and time. If the head/director turnover is high, such relationships will almost never develop.

A faculty that has been spoiled over time: In some schools, the quality of the teaching environment has become so comfortable that no one leaves. Those few new teachers who do arrive are amazed at the quality of life they have in their new school but quickly become spoiled by low work load and high pay and find some reason to repeat the complaints that they hear. Such negative contagious behavior, left unchecked, can turn a wonderful work environment into an unappreciated or very underappreciated one.

I can think of only a few groups of teachers, out of 6,000 client schools, where some of the teachers did not tell me that they were overworked or underpaid or both.

Board member intrusion into faculty politics: It is easy for parent board members in particular to engage in personal conversations with teachers, especially those who teach their own children. This can lead to the creation of networks that bypass, and can become dangerous to the head. The board then may become overly connected and loyal to the faculty such that it second guesses every decision the head makes.

Parent elected boards that play to faculty issues and faculty politics: In those rare US cases, and far more likely in international schools, some parent elected boards may actually play to faculty sentiment or disgruntlement with management in order to be elected. Sometimes teachers are also allowed to vote in these AGM sessions and thus against the administration. However, there have also been cases where teachers supported heads at the AGM, so having teachers vote in these elections can work both ways.

II. Can These Cultures Be Improved?

What are the risks to attempting to change an unhealthy culture? And what are the risks of NOT attempting to do so? This Consultant believes that is it both courageous and necessary to consider seriously tackling unhealthy faculty cultures, especially if the head thinks and believes that he or she will remain as head five years or longer. Obviously, the longer a head stays, the more teachers he or she can recruit who share his/her general sense of mission and the more loyal the faculty members may become.

One solution to curing unhealthy faculty cultures has three steps: building a healthy longer serving board; ensuring longer head tenure; and as the head, choosing more and more teachers who are in tune with the same sense of mission and culture.

To that last point, heads really do need to keep a graph of their entire teaching staff. That graph should cover everything from national origin, family status, years of experience, subject taught, gender, grade level taught, and most desirable attitudes. The head should refer to that graph frequently to ensure that the next hire in the same division or department provides an appropriate balance so that no one group or personality dominates.

An alternative solution with more immediate impact is an intervention by a knowledgeable and sensitive consultant. This consultant should be able to help build bridges between teachers and administration through an honest dialogue that is largely removed from the use of polemics, AND where the “presumption of good intent” becomes the byword of the administrative council meetings and the conversation among teachers in the staff lounge. This is the work that Littleford & Associates does worldwide for schools and other organizations.

John Littleford
Senior Partner