creating positive adult culture

The post that appears below is the original draft I submitted to Edutopia, an amazing website of all things education! (To all my readers working in schools, it is highly valuable and worth following.) 

Some of the best professional advice I keep coming back to is designate time to what you want. If a teacher wants a stronger classroom community, he/she needs to “sacrifice” instructional time to accomplish this. If leadership wants more collaboration, they must allot time in the master schedule. If a school wants a strong adult culture, this goal must be given proper time and attention.

And schools should want this. Kent D. Peterson indicates culture is always at play in a school’s success or failure, whether members of that culture realize it or not. Other research indicates schools focused on building relational trust among staff are more successful at sustained implementation of best practices. Even a Google study says the “psychological safety” of members is critical to the success of a team. And speaking from personal experience, the more I know and trust my colleagues, the better I work with them.

Fortunately, I have worked in several schools that alloted time to building a strong adult culture; here are some of the best strategies.

Let’s start with schoolwide systems.

  • Social-emotional PD sessions. We’ve all been there: tired, burnt out, insecure about our efficacy. I know this from my experience to be especially true in schools serving at-risk populations. In one of those schools, our leadership approached this through direct SEL PD–“Fill Your Cup” sessions. We had staff sign up for hobbies they enjoyed leading such as yoga, cooking, book club, running, biking, karaoke…really anything that brought them joy. Then staff signed up for two of those sessions to “fill their cups.” These sessions were always the most highly rated by our staff, and the next day in school always seemed to have a lightness in the air. It provided a chance for staff to get to know each other in new ways, to blow off steam, to build stronger connections with each other, and to break down barriers of mistrust.   
  • Public acknowledgements. Many schools start and/or end staff meetings with shout-outs, a beneficial practice. I have seen leadership go beyond this as well. One way is through what I’ll call “collective cards.” Our leadership arranged tables of mixed-role staff members. Each person then writes his/her name in the center of a paper. Then he/she passes to the left or right so each staff member can offer a note of thanks or acknowledgement; this continues until everyone at the table has signed all collective cards. This opportunity allows for people to offer a compliment they might not normally have the time for, and it also encourages staff to find the good in everybody. A different approach is through the ending of meetings; one school’s leadership offered a non-traditional exit slip: encourage staff members to email a colleague a note of thanks.
  • Gatherings. We all know the cliche: the family that ___ together, stays together. However, this can apply to school communities as well. Offer opportunities for social events outside of the school day. Make sure they don’t always include alcohol; instead, it should be a variety of activities meeting the needs of many different types of groups. Organize a social committee. Offer opportunities for staff’s families to mingle.
  • Food. Need I say more? What meeting hasn’t been improved by the addition of food! However, sometimes it’s not always in the budget. This is where potlucks and staff sign-ups can play a role. Either way, caring for a belly is caring for a heart, and that goes a long way.

Sometimes it’s hard to start with schoolwide systems. Here are some smaller scale initiatives I have also experienced as successful.

  • Door banners. Who doesn’t want to walk up to their classroom and see wonderful things written about them? At one of my schools, the leadership organized door banners. We put chart paper on a teacher’s door and then organized times for staff members to visit each other and write celebration notes. Not only was this beneficial to teachers, but it was also important for students to see the adults participating in a healthy, collaborative culture.
  • Positive classroom observations. So often when teachers are visited by observers, they tense up knowing they are being judged on what’s not good enough. Additionally, in our professional desire to be better, we forget to pause and reflect on what’s going well. As an instructional coach, one way I alleviated these deficit-based approaches was to visit teachers with the lens of effective teacher moves. During these observations, I would take notes about all the instructional decisions that were to be celebrated…and there were many! Classroom visits focused on strengths shift a school away from a deficit-minded model to an assets-based model.

I want to end with the importance of a staff’s voice. The most important element of adult culture is that staff never feel like things are being done to them, but rather with them. Some of these might work for your school; some of these might be counterintuitive. The only way to know is by asking. Use surveys to gather feedback about adult culture, suggestions for improvement, reflections on PD sessions, and/or other creative community-building ideas.

After all, a school where teachers know, trust, honor, and risk with each other is a school where students learn best.  


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