In a Time of Crisis, Build Your School’s Culture

By the IPLI Leadership Team:  Linda Marrs-Morford, Steve Gruenert, Rhonda Roos, Jane Rogers, Mike Pinto, David Robertson, Brian Disney, & Amy Linkel

When a situation challenges us to respond, we will search our memories first, hoping to find a similar situation by which to inform the best decision.  In schools, we rely on our school culture to dictate our response.  Roland Barth (2002) defines school culture as “a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions, and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization. It is the historically transmitted pattern of meaning that wields astonishing power in shaping what people think and how they act.” This invisible power manifests itself more when there is uncertainty.  With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been flown to a different planet and charged with providing the same services.  In this situation, the culture is not much help with the issues we face today.

In most schools, it takes three to five years to change a culture unless there is a crisis.  We would argue our current pandemic is a crisis, perhaps September 11, 2001, times 100. In 9/11 we knew who the enemy was and took precautions, elevating our safety standards across the nation. With this pandemic, the enemy is not visible, and our friends may unwillingly, unknowingly transmit a virus.

All school cultures are struggling with what to do, because there are no past events to use as frameworks for future decisions. There are no experts since nobody has ever been “here.” However, as expected from our best leaders, this problem can be an opportunity. This is an opportunity for leaders (good and bad) to step up and build the next culture – at least a big piece of it. Cultures are vulnerable now, given the long-term uncertainty. People are searching for comfort, and the bad guys are ready to claim new territory if the good guys let them.

For a short window of time, the bigger culture changes can happen now, and not just easy wins. There are things in the culture that can be changed easier than others. Some things are sacred, and some may be silly routines or rituals that have never been challenged. At this moment, given the crisis at hand, leaders can make large changes in “the way we do things around here” without much pushback.

In the past, school leaders have had to face negative teachers whenever changes were being proposed. Many of the negative teachers were veteran teachers who represent a past era. They had successes 20 years ago, and they have seen many initiatives fail. In an effort to protect the school, and perhaps themselves, negative teachers will remind us of what did not work in the past as weapons of influence. However, today nobody can say, “It won’t work here!”  We’re in a new place where the rules of the past are invalid, at least for a short period of time – perhaps a few weeks or months. There will always be a few toxic people (worse than negative) who claim to have the solutions to problems they have never faced. We typically know who these people are and have granted license to all others to ignore them. Today, we are in a new place, and there are many who are looking for solutions, perhaps in the wrong places.

How does a principal begin to shape a predominantly toxic culture into a collaborative culture, or maintain a positive culture in a time of crisis?  Leadership is critical.  It starts with meeting the needs of our students and staff.  Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs high up.

In a time of crisis, some (adults and children) will be at level one – physiological needs (food, water, warmth, and rest).  For example, many of our students may be wondering where their next meal is coming from, so ensuring that meals are provided is critical. 

Others may be at level two – safety.  They are concerned about the security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, and property.  COVID-19 is scary, and there are lots of myths out there.  Schools should be sharing information with staff and families – what it is, how it is transmitted, how to protect oneself, etc.  Many organizations have infographics available to share, and IPLI has placed many of them on its website for use – http://indianapli.org/ under “resources,” “eLearning.”

Staff/faculty and our students’ parents are worried about their jobs.  “Will I continue to be paid during this crisis?”  Many are concerned about their own health and the health of their children and extended family members.  

By social distancing, the sense of belonging may disappear – Maslow’s third level.  With eLearning, our best teachers may not do well with limited engagement.  They built relationships all year, and the kids are now back to Maslow’s first level.  Teaching of content should not happen until connections are reestablished. 

And, given this new place, you may have some teachers rise to the challenge and obtain some efficacy (level four – esteem) with a new format.  It may be possible this new approach taps into teaching gifts they may have but have never had the opportunity or environment to utilize them.  During this time, the gap between best and weak teachers might get fuzzy as some of the stronger teachers become uncomfortable with eLearning. 

How do we get our teachers, staff, and students to levels four and five – self-esteem and actualization, where they are achieving their full potential? Here are four strategies to consider:  1) have open and honest communication; 2) have regular meetings online; 3) have teachers provide professional development; and 4) continue relationship building via phone call, text, etc.

After the fears of health and security come to bearable levels, it is the time to invest in building connections.  Open and honest communication from the principal is critical.  The principal has to remain calm and communicate positive messages on a regular basis.  Remember, the principal is the filter for the school.  For example, a recorded morning message from the lead learner each day for students and staff to view can do a lot to calm the fears.  Don’t know what to say? Check out Twitter, Instagram, or Google “principal morning messages” for positive examples.

Students at all levels will want to see their teachers faces and hear their voices. As much as possible, what we do online should mimic the positive things we’ve been doing in our schools, just a different medium.

As principals and educational leaders, we need to remember to be human during this crisis.  We know that being open and vulnerable creates trust.  We need to share our own struggles and concerns right now and ask our teachers and staff about theirs.  Ask specifically about how each of them is doing. Not how they’re doing on lesson planning, etc., but how they’re handling their own health, their own kids, their parents, their needs, their particular situations, etc. If we are willing to be transparent through this crisis, our staff members will be able to be more human and real with us.  They need that right now. It’s the leader “leaning in” to her team; it’s the leader “pulling her team toward her” in the most uncertain of times.

Regular online meetings with your staff and individuals are critical.  Continue (or begin) PLC meetings utilizing online meeting tools such as Zoom™, and be a part of these meetings.  This is a great opportunity for teachers to develop lessons together instead of in isolation.  If you are a small school with only one teacher for each grade level, combine grade levels.  Small high schools with only one teacher per subject area can reach out to neighboring districts and create online PLCs.

In these meetings, it’s so important to clarify the work as much as possible for staff.  Set clear expectations to alleviate questions that teachers might have on what they are to be doing or if they’re doing enough. Give clear examples of what is expected and share specific examples of teachers doing just that. It’s a reality check on their expectations. Don’t expect too much from teachers; don’t expect too little; just don’t make the expectations unclear. Remember Brene Brown’s advice, “Clear is kind.  Unclear is unkind.”  If teachers are struggling with something, help them name specifically what that something is.  Once you know, you can help to normalize it and put it in perspective for them. This is all new.  Leaders need to help name the concerns and then help push right through the middle of them. 

These times are stressful, so make sure and close each of these meetings by having someone share the funniest meme they’ve seen in the last few days, or the best recipe they’ve tried, or the best game their family has been playing, or the best Netflix™ show they’re watching, or the best things they saw on their nature walk, or how many kids they waved to when they took a quick drive around their neighborhood – just something to bond staff together through their personal stories. Teachers may even have the last 5 minutes of one meeting to have their family join them on screen so everybody can see what we’re all dealing with! It might not be that pretty:) Just be creative.

In order to move them through their challenges, they will need ongoing professional development to ensure successful online learning for your students.  Use your strong eLearning teachers to conduct this PD, and give teachers a chance to practice with each other.  Online instructional rounds are a great way for teachers to learn from each other.  If you have not been doing eLearning and need resources, reach out to other districts.  IPLI and IASP can help connect you with experienced schools.

Educators have always been the calm in times of crisis.  Now is no exception.  Relationship building (level three) is critical during this pandemic, whether it be with teachers, staff, students, or families.  Good principals and teachers will invest the time it takes to reach out and communicate with individuals.  A quick phone call or text to check-in is important.  The principal could even create a document to chart the calls, texts, notes to each individual staff member to make certain each team member has received an intentional, thoughtful gesture from the leader.

The culture doesn’t know what to do, but soon those who claim to have solutions will be filling the voids, using any type of media available to sell their opinions. If a school leader has ever wanted to make a change in the school culture, it has been weakened, and it is listening. Don’t let the bad guys send more fear or their version of comfort. We need our best leaders now, and whatever they do will echo many times louder than they realize in this new place.

But remember, before leaders move forward on changing the culture, they must take time to really think about what, exactly, they want to communicate through cultural changes and do it in a consistent manner.  Right now, educators are being bombarded with tons of communication, and often miscommunication, which is contributing to the lacking sense of stability.  Be the filter!  If principals can stay “on-point,” whatever that point is, it will help teachers adapt and build the culture.

Don’t forget yourself during this time.  Find ways to relieve the stress and use this “sheltering at home” time to strengthen relationships with the ones you love.  Continue to grow yourself! Most of us have a stack of articles or books we have wanted to read.  In terms of leadership, this is an opportunity to reinvent yourself.  Start asking, What will I take from leading through this crisis and implement in daily practice when we return to “normal?” 

We firmly believe that our teachers and staff members will remember how we led during this time.  Principals, pose these questions to yourself:  Pretend it’s June or July. What do I want my staff to say about me in the next 3-4 months when we might be returning to normal? What specifically do I want them to say about the way I led them through this difficult time?

Reflect on those questions and write down several items of action. Then start today! Start doing those things today so each of your staff members can say just that!