It is not a secret that organizational cultures took a beating during the pandemic. The result for too many of us has been feelings of isolation, struggle to remain engaged in and committed to our work, and even questioning whether we still belong. Unfortunately, without focused attention and careful effort, some of the damage to the culture of our schools and districts will become permanent.
Simply hoping the situation will improve holds little promise. Declaring that certain elements will be part of our culture does not guarantee their presence. Repairing and rebuilding culture takes time and focus. It also requires an understanding of what the culture can be and why rebuilding is important.
Our repair and rebuilding plans must focus on the areas and aspects of our culture that have sustained the most crucial damage. Our plans also need to include expanding and strengthening areas of the culture that were not as robust as they needed to be prior to the pandemic.
Of course, as leaders we must model the central elements of the desired culture consistently and visibly. If we as leaders do not commit to and behave consistently with the culture we seek, all other efforts will likely fall short.
The beginning of a new year is a great time to revisit, reexamine, and recommit to the culture that will define us and the impact we will have on our students, each other, and the communities we serve. We must be intentional, transparent, and authentic in our work to repair and rebuild. We also need to support the work with dialogue, activities, and reflection to translate concepts and aspirations into experience.
Here are five areas of examination and potential activities that can serve as places to start:
Reaffirming core values and purpose. We may assume that the core values in place before the pandemic remain and that everyone accepts and is committed to a common purpose. We may be correct. However, much has changed over the past few years. Unless we revisit, re-examine, reaffirm our core values, and recommit to our central purpose, we risk having them drift, be ignored, and even be abandoned. Our repair and rebuilding efforts must push beyond broad statements to include clear examples and evidence of living our values and purpose. Activities in which we engage might include generating what would constitute evidence of living our purpose and values. We might provide real or constructed case studies, and in response, people could identify the values involved and describe how our purpose would inform actions to take and messages to communicate.
Seeing through the eyes of learners. We can examine learning experiences from the perspective of students. When we do, we shift the focus away from adult issues and gain insights into how learners experience the culture and what we can do to make the culture more inclusive, supportive, and rich for students. Activities that include student voices can stimulate important conversations and dispel faulty assumptions about how students experience school. Student voices can also provide insights regarding where to expand learning opportunities and experiences, how to increase learning commitment, and how to uncover ways to make learning more relevant and compelling.
Reaffirming the value of community. Shared community is a crucial element of a healthy culture. When members feel as though they belong, are valued, and are respected, almost anything becomes possible. People want to feel confident that they will receive support when needed, that they can collaborate without fear of manipulation, and that they can struggle together without fear of blame and abandonment. Activities must help participants to feel what community can be and how it opens doors to possibility.
Celebrating evidence of living our purpose. A strong culture is more than an aspiration. It is experienced daily, sometimes minute by minute. When teachers and other staff members exhibit courage, flexibility, patience, persistence, and other purpose and value related behaviors, it is important that we recognize and celebrate these behaviors and their impact. What we choose to celebrate conveys a message about what we value. The activities we choose need to signal the importance of reflecting and recommitting to core values and purpose.
Building shared capacity. New challenges, a new context, and new expectations call for increased capacity to respond and serve. Initial capacity building activities can engage teams and staff in learning that has value for all. Activities might explore how to stimulate student creativity, promote engagement, and build learning skills. Capacity building can also extend to defining and responding to challenges and opportunities facing the organization. We can explore how everyone can play a role, contribute their talents, and be a resource in meeting challenges and take advantage of opportunities. Organizational culture often becomes strongest when everyone works together in the face of difficult problems, responds to external threats and achieves common goals.
Sustaining a healthy, vibrant culture is difficult work even in stable and predictable times. The times in which we are living are neither. Consequently, the work of repairing and rebuilding culture now is even more challenging. Yet, it is work that can strengthen and transform our organizations and the experiences of those associated with them. We face what may be a once in a career opportunity to lead work that will create a path to greatness for our organizations and for those who are a part of them. It is time to get to work.