Common culture in a school is incredibly important. If you know, or have followed me online, for any amount of time, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard me say it.
When schools have a strong culture, everything else seems to work. New directions, adoption of new policy, and even technology integration goes well when there is a strong culture underpinning it. When I was an educational consultant, I noticed this more acutely than ever before. There are those schools that you walk into and everything seems to be working for them. You get the distinct feeling that no matter what is thrown their way, they would end up on top. Other schools have all the right buzz words, but felt totally dead inside. These are the “junkies” of schools. They are constantly looking for their next fix. New curriculum, new administration, better data, different testing, more technology integration. When you look at what they propose on paper it can look alluring and like it will work. Finally, that elusive magic bullet. But despite all the right buzz-words, despite the latest and greatest new technology, it remains distinctly empty.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that what schools lack most is strong culture. There is no strength and camaraderie among the staff, the students are lacking a model of what strong community looks like, and as a result the school is left looking for their next fix. If you don’t have a healthy culture, those fixes are, at best, temporary. Band-aids.
What Anastasis has going for it, above all else, is a strong culture. As a staff, we genuinely enjoy each other. We look forward to coming to work because that is where friends are. It isn’t that we all agree completely on everything (if you want proof-mention recess duty or prototype lab organization), it isn’t that we all teach the same way, it isn’t that we all use social media to connect with other educators, it isn’t that we have the best*fill in the blank*. What makes our culture strong is that we start from a place of camaraderie and friendship. That friendship leads to great inside jokes, support for one another, lots of laughter, and trickles into a culture for the school.
Matthew and I started Anastasis with a vision and a dream. We didn’t stop there. We’ve invited every one of those we surrounded ourselves with to be a part of that vision. Then we asked that they would dream with us. I’ve just created a community vision board on the wall of our office where we can share those dreams visually. When everyone who comes in our school can see our vision, it is more likely to be supported, encouraged and, fulfilled.
The number one catalyst of this strong culture: shared meals and happy hours. Really. There it is, the magic bullet for education (wonder if the secretary of education will ever pick up on THAT as a policy shift). When you share a meal or a few drinks, you start to learn about each other beyond the walls of the school. Inevitably you chat about what is happening in the school as well as in life. You will make time to smile at each other, chat in the hallways, share more freely. Students pick up on this. The atmosphere feels lighter, happier. Students see community modeled. Now, anything new that comes your way is suddenly doable, because you are doing it together. You are prepared to really support each other.
I often hear, “well sure you can have strong culture-you started the school, but you have NO idea what I am dealing with.” You’re right, I don’t know what your exact situation is. But here is what I do know, your biggest road block is you. Culture is possible everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are an administrator or a science teacher. You don’t have to have administrative support to change culture, you just do it. Invite your colleagues out for happy hour or dinner. Do it regularly. (To see how I did this BEFORE I started my own school, check out this post.)
There is a meme that is going around the edu blogosphere lately. It reminds me of chain letters that I used to get (except without the threat of bad luck FOREVER at the end). The idea behind the meme is to get to know educational bloggers better. Which is pretty great. But what are we doing to get to know the wonderful people in the classroom down the hall better?
Little known fact about me: I am REALLY uncomfortable in social situations. I would so much rather meet with a few good friends than attend a get together with lots of people. I think it boils down to my aversion to small talk. Hate. It. This is probably also the reason I have a love/hate relationship with conferences. Fear of the moments of small talk. Ew. In the beginning, building culture sometimes looks like small talk. You don’t really know each other yet so you are reduced to some uncomfortable chit-chat. But do that more than once, and you run out of chit-chat. Real conversations start to happen. I’ve now known the majority of Anastasis staff for 3 years. We still learn about each other. I asked them questions from the meme blog post I was tagged in and learned things I didn’t know. Building community.
In addition to meals and happy hour, Anastasis staff goes to see movies together (sometimes we call it professional development). We do yoga in the park together during the summer. A few of us started walking/running through the cemetery after school together (of course we use the Zombie Run app). Sometimes we shoot skeet together or paint together. We send each other stupid video clips and songs and pictures. We throw each other cat showers. We are silly and vulnerable.
Building culture isn’t about making everyone think the way you do. It is about doing life together and starting to understand their perspective. It is about building friendships and community that spills into what happens during the school day. Convincing someone to use social media as a method of professional development is a whole lot easier when you have an inside joke to share with them via social media. Working together to better your school is more effective when you are dreaming together.
This isn’t impossible. You don’t have to wait for your administration to do this for you. There is no permission to seek. You have to decide it is important and you need to make the first step to making a personal connection. Watch how it ripples and spreads through your school. A close community of educators builds a powerful culture of learning and change. It also makes everything a whole lot more fun.
A strong culture is absolutely transformational. When you have a community that works together, it changes the education conversation.
As it turns out, education’s magic bullet is happy hour.
And now, because I was tagged in some “Getting to know you” memes, I give you the following (Thanks @mrskmpeters, you are wonderful!).
11 Random Facts About Me1. As stated previously, small talk is SO painful. I wish I could avoid it for the remainder of my time on earth.
2. My first boyfriend and kiss was my husband @jtenkely…it was in college.
3. No, I wasn’t one of those girls who had crazy ideas about not dating…I just didn’t get asked out in high school. We’ll call it Ugly Duckling Syndrome.
4. I legitimately have taxidermiphobia. It is an actual thing. I immediately get flop sweat and hyperventilate in the face of taxidermy.
5. I’m trying to overcome said phobia with fake taxidermy. It started with a picture that I made myself and has progressed to a metal deer head hanging in my kitchen. (Jury is still out if this therapy is working.)
6. I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Finding a great flavor combination is so happy.
7. When I was a kid, my dad owned a wooden model rocket company called “Retro Rocket Works.” I spent a few summers at LDRS (large dangerous rocket ships).
8. When I grow up I want to be a rocket scientist. And a writer. And a graphic artist.
9. I have rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve had it since I was 9. It is a stupid disease and makes things like buttoning your own pants impossible some days.
10. I live with the MOST incredibly talented person I’ve ever met (that is saying something because my parents are pretty dang talented…see Koostik). I seriously believe that @jtenkely can do anything. He is like an incredibly good-looking creative super hero. And he loves me…winning.
11. I love crafting and making things. In my own mind I’m the upgraded version of Martha Stewart.
Questions from Kristina:
1. Favorite travel destination: I love Napa…it is so low-key, beautiful and wonderful. Wine is also involved.
2. How many passport stamps do you have? ummm, I think somewhere around 16… I’ve obviously not kept track. Most of them are to England, one to France, one to Israel, and a few Mexico.
3. Dogs or cats? Dogs…that act like cats. Shiba Inu is best of both worlds and SO stinking adorable. See my instagram for proof :)
4. Italian or Mexican food? If I’m cooking- Italian, If we are eating out- Mexican.
5. If only one social media outlet: Pinterest. I get sucked right in. I LOVE Twitter, but Pinterest totally feeds my inner visual geek.
6. Favorite book in 2013: I have to say, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our 8th graders read it, I read it as a result of a conversation I caught. Brilliant.
7. What makes you happy? Lots of things. Sunsets are pretty great. @jtenkely is a sure bet.
8. Favorite Friends episode: Dang, this is a tough one. I like the one where Rachel and Phobe run.
9. Choice of professional development, traditional or edcamp? I like the more unconventional best. I’m a little bit of an educational heretic.
10. If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be about? My TED talk would be about starting a school. It would be epic.
11. Favorite classroom stories: Student came into my computer lab, “Mrs. Tenkely, can I lick the chocolate off of my headphones?” Me: “Why is there chocolate on your headphones?” Student (very matter of fact): “They were in my pocket.” Me: crickets… Student: “I hide chocolate in my pockets because I’m not allowed to have it. It gets melty so I can stick my hand in my pocket and sneak it all day. I accidentally put my headphones in my pocket. So can I lick it off?” Me: Yep, go for it…chocolate shouldn’t go to waste!
Your turn. Instead of tagging educational bloggers, I want you to have these conversations with others in your school. Invite them out for a drink or a meal. Talk. Build community and culture.