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Leadership Insights

New School Year Challenge: Mending a Toxic School Culture

By Jennifer Gunn August 5, 2019

Even the best schools can hit a school culture slump. Catty or complaining cliques, staffing changes, sinking morale, exhaustion — it can all lead to a toxic school culture. The new school year is the perfect time to take action — whether you’re a school leader or classroom teacher — and reinvigorate your school’s culture, setting things in motion for a great school year!

Hit the reset button

A new school year has a remarkable ability to be a reset button for school staff and students. Everyone is more rested, more hopeful, and further away from last year’s problems and issues. A new year is a significant opportunity to hit reset on your school’s culture and start fresh. Those first professional development and set-up days with your staff need to be warm, welcoming, and clear, and they should set the tone for the year ahead. Consider how you’d like your staff to feel this year as opposed to last year. What would you like them to say about you as a leader or about your school and its culture? What problems contributed to last year’s culture issue?

Remember, whatever went wrong last year is not automatically “the way it is” for this year. Address those issues with clarity and a plan for the future, so that your staff knows that their leadership recognizes the problems and has a vision for righting the ship. Even better, include the staff in the ideating process. Finally, know that while the beginning of the year is a great launching pad, it’s not the only time leaders and educators can reflect and respond to a school’s cultural needs. “Responsive and reflective teaching means that you are relentless in your efforts to make school welcoming and productive for all students,” says Emily Chiariello, an education consultant specializing in diversity and equity in K-12 education, with two decades of experience as a classroom teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer, content developer, and writer. “If behavior management or classroom culture issues are getting in the way of that, then addressing those issues must be a priority.” 

Rebuild broken relationships

Positive relationships among staff are crucial toward building a successful school and healthy school culture. Resentment, jealousy, distrust, and poor communication are true culture killers. In fact, research has shown that trust and positive relationships between staff and school leaders are paramount to a school’s success. According to Building Trusting Relationships For School Improvement: Implications For Principals And Teachers by Education Northwest, “The U.S. Department of Education’s Comprehensive School Reform Program (CSR), for example, emphasizes that if improvement efforts are to be successful over the long term, school leaders must first build a solid foundation for schoolwide reform. Such foundations are characterized by trust among school members, collegial relationships, and widespread buy-in and support, as well as a shared vision for change.” In the coming school year, it’s imperative to focus on repairing broken relationships among the staff, building trust, and enhancing the school’s professional atmosphere.

Addressing self-preservation mode

Often when a school’s culture is suffering, educators go into self-preservation mode. “Anytime people are more concerned with preserving themselves rather than serving kids, you have a breeding ground for toxicity,” says Dr. Robyn Jackson, CEO of Mindsteps, a consultancy that helps schools and school leaders improve. “This causes the dearth of good ideas and motivates talented teachers to leave.” When teachers and leaders begin to isolate, culture breaks down. School leaders, as well as classroom teachers, can help this problem by prioritizing collaboration and professional collegiality. Leaders should enter the new school year by increasing opportunities for collaboration and by routinely celebrating the ideas of the staff in Professional Development sessions and meetings. Empower teachers to share their best practices and lead projects, then honor the work and successes they achieve. 

Communicate openly and listen willingly

There are few more divisive practices than alienating staff members through poor communication. No one likes to feel uninformed, undervalued, or unheard. Top-down leadership can throw a nasty wrench into school culture, and effectively dismiss the concerns, ideas, and contributions of a school’s staff. In the upcoming school year, create thoughtful and clear methods and opportunities for staff to communicate with leadership and be willing to truly listen — even when it’s difficult. The practice of mindful and reflective listening can go a long way toward making your staff feel heard and appreciated. 

Clear vision + mission

A school’s mission and vision have a tendency to be hidden away on a website or document, remaining untouched and unseen. At the start of a new school year, revisit your mission statement to ensure that it truly speaks to the beliefs, values, and aims of the learning community. According to John G. Gabriel and Paul C. Farmer in their book How to Help Your School Thrive Without Breaking the Bank, “a vision is your school’s goal — where you hope to see it in the future. The mission provides an overview of the steps planned to achieve that future. A vision is concise and easy to recall, whereas a mission is lengthier and more explanatory in nature.” The new school year is also time to have teachers work on their own classroom-based mission statements

Jennifer L. M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education, where she has been for nearly a decade. She is a curriculum designer and public high school educator in New York City. Jennifer is the creator of Right to Read, a literacy acceleration program for urban adolescent youth that’s steeped in social justice. She is an education writer and is co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference, which won the New York City Department of Education Excellence in School Technology Award this year. Jennifer regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation. Follow Jennifer online at www.jenniferlmgunn.com or on Twitter.

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