Collaborating Towards a Better Staff Culture
When I began my first principalship, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I had plans for working on curriculum and professional development as well as many other small projects, but I knew I needed to work on staff culture before I tackled anything else. At a meeting I had had with a large group of the teachers as part of the interview for this position, I noticed, even in this small window of time, evident tension between departments. There were clear issues surrounding differences in culture and religious observance among the staff. It was obvious that no significant pedagogical change could happen until the staff was able to work together.
A second, seemingly unrelated issue was the fact that the school was due for reaccreditation in that first year. When I arrived for my first day we had less than eight months before our site visit. The deadline for submitting a lengthy and involved treatise on the state of the school in twelve different areas, which had not been started at all, was even sooner. The last time the school had gone through this process they hired someone to coordinate the writing of this volume; this time the task fell to me, the new principal.
A plan for collaboration
Initially these two challenges were not connected in my mind. I had a plan of attack for moving the culture forward, but it did not involve the accreditation report specifically. I made clear to the staff my assumption that we were going to work as a team, and I constantly circled back to this idea. All emails to groups started with the term “team”: dear admin team, dear first grade team, dear Judaic team. We planned consistent and regular staff meetings. Initially, the purpose of these meetings was to develop our staff professionally together, but the massive amount of work needed for the accreditation report meant that we needed to commandeer most of the time towards having teams of teachers work on the report. We needed to use this to our advantage. As part of the shifting towards a more positive staff culture, I had planned to have teachers get together on shared tasks in mixed groups in order to force some of the disparate groups to reorganize. The accreditation report gave us a great opportunity.
Creating an accreditation report without having experience doing so was a difficult task, compounded by the fact that the teachers were being asked to collaborate in a way that they were not used to. They also had not previously been asked to take this type of stake in the school and to be involved in aspects which were so far outside their classroom duties. Despite these issues, the results of this collaboration were overwhelmingly positive. Over the year there was a clear change in the tenor of staff conversations. I found that we were able to discuss more sensitive issues in staff meetings. This began toward the end of the first year and had a ripple effect in the subsequent years of meetings. Jumping into a collaborative task seemed to have been an excellent way to create a culture more attuned to collaboration.
Structuring the collaborative task
Not all tasks or structures will be well received or have the desired outcome. Having staff rush into a collaborative task without specific training and preparation for working together is a risk. There are four aspects to the task and the structure which helped this risky endeavor coalesce into a positive change in staff culture:
it was an important task which was tied to the mission and vision of the school.
we used groupings which were specifically designed for our needs.
the project had a clear structure and a measurable goal.
the entire group was accountable for the result.
The task needs to be relevant and important, and needs to be clearly communicated to the teachers. In our case, the task was something which was necessary for the school to be accredited. The teachers understood how critical the accreditation process was to our school, for recruitment among other reasons. We presented the report as important internally as well, since it would serve as a snapshot of how we were doing educationally as a school and parlay into the roadmap of our growth areas. This resonated deeply with teachers who were frustrated with specific (different) aspects of the school and shared a commitment to changing the school for the better.
Teachers need to be grouped heterogeneously, keeping their personalities in mind. The heterogenous grouping is critical in having teachers work in teams that would not form naturally. We created groups that always included at least one general studies, one Hebrew and one Judaic teacher in order to meet our goal of fostering communication and collaboration among the departments. These groupings were frequently not intuitive, given that each group was writing about a specific area of the school, requiring in-depth knowledge. Some teachers may have felt that they were not able to contribute much to the group. Nonetheless, the gains in terms of a feeling of cohesion among the staff were worth it.
The outcome must be clearly delineated so that the groups will spend their time engaged in productive collaboration. In our case, each group had a concrete document to return to the administration by a specific date, requirements tied directly to the externally imposed timeline. We also provided a clear structure for their writeup. Since we had the previous report, we gave them examples of their sections from an earlier submission. This may have cut down on the creativity and the degree to which they fully generated the document, but the gains in clarity made it the right move in this circumstance.
In order to reinforce the idea that the group is expected to collaborate, the accountability must be groupwide. Our groups were given time at staff meetings to work on their respective sections. I did not pick someone to lead the group, nor did I ask the group to pick a leader. When one member would communicate with me about the project, I would include the entire group on my response to reinforce my expectation that they all take responsibility for their work. Although some teachers chose to play less of a role than I would have liked, continuing to keep them accountable minimized this issue.
It is common for schools to engage in specific team-building sessions during in-service or orientation days. While there is value in this type of activity, I have not found it to provide the same team feel and culture shift as jumping into an actual task they need to accomplish together. Some teachers get impatient with team-building sessions that feel artificial, when they want to get right into the work of changing a school for the better. Teachers tend to be passionate about educating children and making schools engines of growth and development. Working on a substantive task which is directly related to their passion is a very effective way for teachers to connect with one another.
Administrators who take this approach on important tasks must expect that the process of getting the task done will be messier. However, the final product will usually be just as good, and frequently even better, and the cohesion created will be more lasting, effective and relevant to the school’s culture.