An interview with Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker (Opinion)

It’s that time of year again, and I’ll alternate between posting topical collections of past articles and sharing interviews with authors of recent books that I consider important and useful to us educators. New questions will start in September.

This post in the third in my author series – I was able to interview Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, co-authors of Rewired school culture: how to define, assess and transform it.

Steve Gruenert is director of the Department of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University. His research passion is school culture and climate, and he continues to engage with leaders nationally and internationally, helping them think about the role of culture in school improvement. Todd Whitaker is a leading education speaker and professor of instructional leadership at Indiana State University. He is the author of more than 30 books, including What Great Teachers Do Differently, Service in 10 minutesand Move the monkey.

LF: I’ll start with an obvious question: why write a book on school culture?

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker:

There is a force that keeps schools from improving, and that force only exists in people’s minds. School culture is the illusion of peer pressure for adults. If we can help educators realize that school improvement/self-improvement is a choice, perhaps others will rise to the challenge.

We had three main goals for writing the book. The first was to make sure that everyone understood what the school culture is. The second reason was to help school leaders measure the cultures of their schools. Several instruments are provided to help determine the type of school culture they may have and how far it may be from the one they want. The third reason for the book is to empower educators to transform their culture.

Another reason came to us when we worked with teachers preparing to become principals. Feedback from teachers who completed the practicum portion of the school leadership preparation program indicated that discussions based on school culture and climate had the most impact on their effectiveness as a future administrator . Knowing the school culture gives them the confidence to move a school forward because they realize that the culture is the biggest resistance they will ever face. It is only when we understand the culture that we can change it.

LF: How do you distinguish school “culture” from school “climate”?

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker:

This comparison is necessary because we find that many school leaders use the terms interchangeably. Culture is the personality of the group, which is influenced by leadership, community, school history, and the unwritten rules people follow. Climate is the general attitude of people in the school towards specific situations. Culture is our “brand”. Climate is what our brand makes us feel.

Culture can be thought of as our work religion, climate is simply the mood we tend to be in at work. Climate is allowed by culture to allow members of an organization a range of responses to a given situation. For example, in some schools, the culture whispers in teachers’ ears to look forward to weekends and summer holidays. In some schools, Mondays are celebrated.

Climate is one of the many imprints of culture. This allows us to better understand the culture and perhaps influence change within the culture. To change the climate, we could bring donuts to school on Mondays. To change the culture, bring donuts to school every Monday. Soon it will become an expected event. However, bringing donuts to school as a school improvement strategy will not change anyone’s disposition towards learning.

LF: You describe several types of common school cultures in the book. Could you summarize each type and give a practical example of how they might affect the daily life of a school?

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker:

In order to better understand school culture and to visualize the kind one may wish for versus the one that may exist, we have chosen to juxtapose five cultures with a collaborative school culture: toxic, fragmented, balkanized, artificial, and comfortable. Each type is operationalized using the faculty meeting as a framework. We believe that one can begin to identify the type of school culture that exists given the following:

  • Toxic school culture – in this setting some teachers don’t show up, new ideas are quickly dismissed, sarcasm and ridicule seem to be the main tone of most discussions. There is an us versus them mentality, the students/parents are “them”. There is a victim mentality that serves as an excuse to do nothing. Good teachers are uncomfortable and regress to fit in or leave. When it comes to conversations about improvement, toxic teachers want the school to improve, however, they define improvement as making their job easier. Within this framework. we don’t know who is leading the faculty meeting. Negativity from the meeting will spill into the parking lot and classrooms.
  • Fragmented school culture – at this meeting of teachers, most teachers are very calm, there is a calm feeling of apathy. Some are grading assignments, texting, or checking email as the meeting progresses. There is a feeling of “let’s get it over with”. Most conversations revolve around household maintenance items. School improvement is a topic on the agenda with test scores as the only usual variable that defines improvement. In this context, autonomy trumps collaboration.
  • Balkanized school culture – cliques of teachers arrive together like teams that arrive on the playground, sit together, whisper and giggle at inside jokes. There is a competitive tone as members of cliques challenge other cliques to defend their opinions. There is an irrational defense of weak teachers when conversations about improvement drift to blame. In fact, the relationships forged among faculty members are more important than the school’s mission. There are seasoned teachers who seem to run the meeting.
  • Artificial school culture – there is a formal agenda with rules of order followed, attendance is taken and each department gives a report. Most new ideas come from the administration. The director leads conversations about best practices without worrying about local confounding variables; just do it. There is a sense of stress in all teachers as the leader imposes a sense of urgency that is more like panic. This meeting will not take place without the presence of the principal, and it is the principal who leads all discussions.
  • Comfortable school culture – in this meeting there is a lot of laughter, celebration, rewards, comfort food, thanks, praise and empathy. People tend to look forward to getting together and are in no rush to leave. Support staff are present and recognized for their good work. Good teachers are comfortable and feel validated. Self-esteem and self-efficacy are strong. It looks more like a party than a meeting. There is little self-reflection.
  • The school’s collaborative culture – this is the meeting that will challenge the thinking of everyone present. There is a sharing of ideas – what works and what doesn’t, and why. It feels like action research happens all the time. Teachers take notes, reflect on what others share. The stories shared affirm a vision that identifies the scope of relevant values ​​and beliefs. All are driven by an intrinsic desire to see all students succeed. Weak teachers are uncomfortable. The meeting feels like a good practice.

LF: Much of your book seems to be written from the point of view of the actions that a principal, as a primary headteacher, can take to assess and change the culture of a school. What steps do you think teachers can take if their principal doesn’t seem interested in doing this kind of cultural assessment?

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker:

This is one of the most difficult scenarios. The principal will have the greatest impact on what happens in a culture. Attempting cultural change without the principal will look like mutiny. If a school’s culture is in bad shape and the principal has been there for a long time, the principal may not be the solution. A group of top teachers can get together and have informal discussions about the future of the school and they might identify some obstacles to overcome. However, these discussions should include the director and should not take place without the director’s input. Too often, a small group of strong teachers will evolve into a clique, hoping to improve the school, but in reality this can result in the creation of a subculture that divides the faculty.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to share?

Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker:

We thought it was helpful to use the term “rewired” because it implies that we as humans are wired to socialize. Each of us strives to belong to a group, and that group comes to define who we are, how we work, and what we enjoy. The concept of a collaborative school culture invites everyone to be part of something bigger than themselves; it is the ultimate professional development mechanism. We think it takes a long time to change a culture, but it only takes two minutes to get started. There are leverage points that make the school culture vulnerable to change. Hopefully the book helps readers understand these dynamics and feel confident to start doing something meaningful to improve their schools tomorrow.

LF: Thank you, Steve and Todd!

Carol C. Reed