School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It
By Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker (ASCD, 2015)
Reviewed by Cheryl Rogers and Dawn Kivlehan
The co-authors, Gruenert and Whitaker provide strategies and recommendations for evaluating, and transforming your school’s culture into one that is positive, and life changing in terms of student success. Gruenert and Whitaker make it clear to the reader that each school has a culture, with belief systems, and expectations that reflect its distinctive mission and demographics. The authors offer strategies and advice for defining, assessing and transforming a school’s culture into one that is positive and actively works to improve students’ learning and lives. “Rewiring a culture is like turning around an ocean liner-it takes a long time.” The length of time it takes to rewire a culture is dependent on how long it has been in existence. The culture in a school building should be treated as a family by including its members in on important decisions whenever possible. This book is not only entertaining, but it is a practical guide to rewiring your culture, and should be considered for one’s educational library.
Defining the culture of a school means to understand what it is and what it isn’t. One must know the leverage points and road blocks, and recognize and acknowledge the current status as well as the past. The author’s suggest that once we learn about our culture, we can no longer be its victims because we have choices. We can comply with it or leave it. They define climate and culture as both residing in our minds. Culture is the school’s personality influencing our values and beliefs and, climate is the school’s attitude, values and beliefs in action.
Cultural change must be a school-wide movement, not just an individual effort. Leadership really does matter! The authors recommend hiring for rewiring. An excellent example is when a new coach was hired in a school district. It was the school policy that staff members who were involved in extracurricular activities, did not have to attend the staff meeting. When the new coach went to the staff meeting, one of his colleagues informed him of the policy. The coach responded with a reply, that he expected his athletes to put academics first, therefore he should also. He considered the staff meetings to be educational. He was determined to set a good example for his athletes regardless of the current culture of trying to avoid the staff meetings at all cost.
The school-year cycle affects cultural rewiring. The authors outline the best way to use the calendar in the service of cultural change. On the first day it is recommended that one finds some teachers you trust to help you, sharing ideas but NOT mentioning culture. The first week teachers are selected to informally discuss the direction you want to go in with other teachers in the building. The first month, leaders are still planting seeds, wanting the teachers to feel that changing the culture is their idea. And in the first year, cultural shifts will be easiest to ascertain by monitoring the behaviors and conversations of teachers. You now know who your allies are and who your roadblocks to change are.
Collaboration is essential when building a school cultural rewiring team. A video by Derek Sivers (2010) titled “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy” shows the individual dancing alone (p.154, we have seen this video. It is very entertaining). The Lone Nut-that is the risk-taking, culture-busting Leader#1. He needs to create a vision that is easy to follow. The building of momentum should NOT be about Leader#1 but about everyone on board with the vision. Leader #2 is the first to follow the lone nut-thus transforming the lone nut into a leader. Leader #3 is the second to follow leader #1, the one who motivates the others and helps to create a crowd, giving momentum to the vision. When a critical mass of people become followers of the vision a tipping point is reached-it now becomes risky not to join the movement.
The authors suggest by developing school improvement teams, the staff develop a sense of ownership over what goes on in the schools and, prevents the appearance that the school leader alone is calling the shots. Think of the school improvement team as people who interact with all teachers every day. Knowing the type of culture you have will help you plan for the type of culture you want. A School Climate Survey is outlined in the book, with suggestions regarding data collection, interpretation and how to begin important conversations with the staff. We recommend this survey be considered.