BLOG: Curating Cultures of Growth

Curating Cultures of Growth

When we consider the places we’ve worked, grown up or went to school there are a multitude of feelings that pervade our memories with our earliest remembrances occurring around the time we walked into a school for the first time. What thoughts first spring to mind when you think of hallmark experiences from your life? (Please stop and take a moment to reflect. What does come to mind first? Please make note of it.)

Maybe it was the time you successfully practiced many hours for a dance or musical recital, the day you caught a fish with a beloved relative or the time a teacher wrapped her arm around you after a failed test and who later gave you the opportunity for a retake. The feelings could also bear the sting of embarrassment from a boss’ rudeness, being left out by peers or disrespected by your principal. The memories that stick with us, do so for a reason from recalling the joy to anticipating an anxious moment to avoid.

In any of the above examples or the ones you brought to mind, you lived within a culture, whether it was safe and inviting or cold and disruptive or somewhere in between. Often you exited and entered different cultures from home to school to ball fields, the dance halls or shops in your neighborhood and had to switch your mentality, approach or even survival techniques to live, learn, achieve or earn in that space.

Just like the variety of memories you and your Montgomery Public School colleagues are experiencing here, schools provide so many chances to effect culture because there are so many stakeholders to care for, whether that starts in a meeting room, a classroom or over the phone. And everything a leader does feeds the culture under their care.

A common experience for me as a principal (and maybe for you) was hearing teachers disagreeing about a student’s ability, attention or drive. In one example, a teacher shares frustration because of a student’s actions or inactions in their class while another teacher only has positive statements to share about the very same student. How could one student behave so differently in the same school amongst two, three and up to five teachers?

Adults are apt to pin poor behavior and lack of learning on a student without examining the culture – the beliefs, mindsets, behaviors and narratives that emanate from those learning spaces. Even worse is simply accepting failure from students or staff with no regard to how the classroom, school, district or greater community culture may be affecting their learning.

As you read in Chapter 1, Culture Curation is a methodology that needs practice wherever the learning is happening to ensure growth throughout a district. Curation unlike creation is dependent on many hands and voices as opposed to the one or handful of few influential colleagues, peers or leaders. Curation is an act of modeling from a leader’s perspective and a strong sense of how culture derives, not just from the leader, but through all those under a leader’s care.

From our youngest students to our most seasoned staff, we all share a similar outlook on the culture of school because we are all together doing the work of leading, teaching and learning together. And while we experience our cultures individually, we are create collective narratives that define us and our work together.

Who Gets to Tell or Share Their Story in School?

Consider the quote from the writer, Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We all are constantly shaping and reshaping our worlds by the stories we tell ourselves and others. In the case of school there are a multitude of story-makers thinking, saying and/or writing their stories down for themselves and those around them. What are the kids saying at recess, in the cafeteria, the gym, in their journals or their homes about school? How about the teachers? Support staff? Families? Community members?

Furthermore, what are the common threads to these stories, if any exist? If you haven’t considered the myriad of school stories being told every single day, now may be a good time to start gathering and influencing them.

To help you think about your own hand in culture curation through narrative, let’s consider a conductor of an orchestra. Like you, conductors have a strong hand in determining their culture through choosing what music will be played to how it will be played through their position of power – the holder of the music with their baton leading upwards of 100 instrument players through the course of a concert. If the music only derives through the conductor’s experience, then the players become merely an instrument for the sole goals of one person. In this case, 100 players lose their voice in sharing their story, their interpretation of the music which is built from their own unique experience and tastes.

What if through practice, feedback, and curiosity the conductor learned more about his players gifts, stories and passions for the music played through each section: woodwind, brass, string and percussion? In this case, the story of the music would move from what was only in the conductor’s head and heart to what is in the heads and hearts for all he leads. Opportunities would arise daily to hear, see and connect the beliefs, mindsets, behaviors and narratives of the entire orchestra as one cohesive unit striving from the same processes to produce beautiful music.

To think that the conductor has no part in shaping orchestra culture through his expertise or that it’s only his to create through his singular experience are equally wrongheaded. Culture pervades from all that leaders do and say, as well as setting the tone for all others to follow. This can happen through intentional plans or by default when a leader takes little to no role in curation of culture. While the former takes a lot of work, the latter is usually haphazard and dysfunctional despite or because of the efforts of those filling the culture void.

This brings me to a series of suggested questions for you to consider, discuss or reply to in the discussion board below:

  • How have you influenced or modeled cultures of growth in your school or department?
  • How have you allowed, amplified and shared the voices of all stakeholders under your care?
  • What opportunities are given to staff and students to share their needs, strengths and unique perspectives?
  • Do you know your school or department culture? How do you know?

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