If you had any doubt that cultivating a positive school culture is top of mind for school leaders, you need only look at Fall Creek School District (Wisconsin) Superintendent Joe Sanfelippo's session at the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, Florida, this week to see otherwise.
During a packed session titled "Creating a Culture of Yes," Sanfelippo detailed three components of creating and maintaining a strong school or district culture. If administrators do these things, they'll “get to a place where the culture of yes just kind of takes over,” he told the audience.
"You have to understand that every interaction [in school] matters, because every interaction could be the one they talk about for the rest of their lives," Sanfelippo said.
It can be easy to overlook the "moments of awe" happening in schools all the time, but educators must be sure to draw attention to them, he said. It's not about restoring the awe of learning, but recognizing that it’s already happening and celebrating it.
When you know why you’re doing something, what you’re doing has more purpose, he added. A leadership journey that doesn’t start with your "why" ends somewhere you don’t want to be — but you have to understand other people’s "why" so they’re inspired to do their best work, too.
YOU WILL BE REMEMBERED. The only question...IS HOW? Be intentional with every interaction...they all matter. #leadershipchallenge #leadfromwhereyouare #hackingleadership #1minwalk2work pic.twitter.com/bRqtk8RyCO— Joe Sanfelippo (@Joe_Sanfelippo) January 19, 2019
How do educators make sure they’re telling stories in a different capacity and making their school or district a place where people are doing their best work? When people make up what you do, it’s not always the gaps you want them to fill in.
People judge you all the time, he said. But educators work too hard for people to fill in the gaps with things they think are happening that aren’t happening.
"Every 30 seconds, you’re either building culture or you’re creating culture," Sanfelippo told attendees. Culture is created in the meeting after the meeting, when the "real" conversations happen. Building a "culture of yes" is really about creating trust among people and opening doors for them, and for the community.
"You don’t always have to be right; you do always have to be real," he said.
The superintendent shared a story about how all the power went out in his small, rural district, except for at the school. Letting the community know they could store their food in the school’s fridge was enough to build trust — people ultimately only brought three bags of food, but the community at large appreciated the gesture.
If a majority of the voting public doesn’t have children in school, they’re more likely to see it as an expense. But education leaders have to show them the value of that investment, he said.
Additionally, parents want to hear stories about their children, and leaders can open the doors to them by sharing specifics. For example, rather than just telling a mom that her sophomore son is awesome, tell her how impressed you were to see him reading to a 3rd-grade student during story time, exercising patience and recognizing that, in that moment, his efforts meant everything to the younger child.
Recognizing people by name when you tell their stories to the public and showing that you're making the effort to see their perspective is also critical. Personal day giveaways, in which faculty and staff members can receive a day off and administrators can fill their shoes, can build bridges while also providing an opportunity for administrators to demonstrate that employee's value in videos and photos on social media.
Personal notes also show appreciation and build culture. Sanfelippo said he starts his day with two positive notes to people as a way to get people to a point where they say, "This is our school."
As schools take steps to build a positive culture and meaningful change, leaders, Sanfelippo said, will encounter five groups of people:
- The trailblazers who are the first to rush headlong into change.
- The group who waits to see what happens to the trailblazers.
- The people who wait for both of those groups and go once it’s definitely safe.
- The group who progresses as slowly as possible in the hopes that there’s another change and they can then walk to that goal slowly, too.
- The group that digs their feet in and builds walls to keep from going along.
Every single time you connect with someone in your school community, you are building or killing culture. When you walk into the faculty room, do you build the energy up or do you suck the air right out? You don't want to be an "awfulizer," Sanfelippo said.
Incorporating passion projects in the professional growth model can earn buy-in. Let educators choose what they want to get better at, and have them present their growth to their colleagues in a "street fair." You might even consider livestreaming that event. When he tried this approach, Sanfelippo had 53 of 56 surveys returned with 100% approval afterwords.
His district also does "press conference" interview videos in the on-boarding process to introduce all newly hired staff members to the school community. Those videos go on Facebook, and then everyone gets to know the new employees before they even set foot in the door.
Never give up the opportunity to say something great about your school, Sanfelippo said.