Changing Educational Culture & Climate

By: Benjamin B. Bowman

This article is about the six-step change leadership strategies I used in order to improve internal communication within an educational institution.

At the outset, tension surfaced on how higher level school officials defined their issue-- one of internal communication and public relations versus how school staff defined the issue-- official policy and workplace treatment.

This article organizes the issues as collectively relating to work climate and internal communication.

FACTS:

"Client" held its first class 26 years ago with the mission to bring an oasis of learning in the midst of a city plagued by a 47 percent illiteracy rate (National Institute for Literacy), per capita income of just $14,118 (American Community Survey) and a 14.5 percent unemployment rate (Department of Labor). To get the wheels moving on connecting people with opportunity, "client" routinely benefits from individual and corporate donors from organizations such as: Deloitte, PWC and DTE to name a few.

"Client" identifies the following communications problems over the past year as:

  1. Four media reports damaged the school’s brand

  2. Staff turnover reached an all-time high

  3. High absenteeism

ISSUE:

How can this client change its internal communications messaging and/or policies to increase staff morale, reduce staff absenteeism and thereby deliver quality education for its students while suppressing negative press?

ANALYSIS:

This section is organized by first examining issues the client's administration discussed followed by issues its staff discussed.

Administration’s Take:

Throughout a one week series of meetings and interviews, the client's administration believes that the central issues result from staff not fully appreciating the difficulty behind operating a business. In the school I’m focused on, a first year administrator came in and inherited a historically difficult staff to manage. Frequently, staff members call in sick if an administrator makes a decision a staff member does not find agreeable.

Oftentimes staff members behave in ways that show insubordination or a wanton disrespect for authority by email, during staff meetings and personal interactions.

The local television station published several damaging reports about events administration finds concerning. In one news report, the issue of overcrowded classrooms surfaced. Here the news station aired video of scores of first graders sitting on plastic milk crates in about three different classrooms. No one knows who captured the video-- a parent, staff, student or someone else. However, officials from the school were flooded with calls from angry parents threatening to remove their students from the school if things did not change. A few parents actually removed their children from the school days after the story aired.

Staff’s Take:

Staff members generally state that their behavior are reactions from their perceptions of being treated unfairly. They say their building is understaffed and overcrowded with the resulting effects difficult to withstand. During the first two months teachers reported that they did not receive a “prep” period. Prep periods give teachers the chance to prepare for upcoming classes, meet with other teachers and completing administrative tasks. One teacher reported that after missing 40 hours worth of preps, he asked to leave work an hour early to attend a dental appointment.

According to the teacher’s testimony, administration denied the request and instead advised him to take a personal day off. In retaliation, the staff member took three consecutive days off. This made it difficult for the school to operate because of a shortage of substitute teachers. So this teacher’s students were divided among other teachers causing inflated class sizes and missed educational opportunities.

A more general complaint expressed by staff members involves perceptions of favoritism. One school assistant principal hired a teacher she worked with at another school.

In general, the staff complains that this teacher gets preferential treatment in the following ways:

(1) reduced classroom sizes--even when other teachers are required to add students due to teacher absences

(2) the largest school classroom with more resources

(3) the ability to regularly miss staff meetings while holding onto a coveted “lead teacher” title.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

1. Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of organizational issues.

Both parties are more likely to initially commit to the change process if they agree on what is wrong and what can be improved. After interviews, brainstorming sessions should be conducted with a group of administrators and a group of staff members-- meeting held separately. But ideas from interviews expressed with both groups. (Action: Consultant)

2. Develop a shared vision of how to organize and manage for competitiveness.

Organize diverse group of committees to address cultural and policy issues heading into the next term. Institute a democratic process to ensure fairness-- no gerrymandering or court-packing committees.

(Action: School/Administration)

3. Foster consensus for the vision, competence to enact it & cohesion to move it.

Offer assistance to those who want help. Transfer hostile members who refuse to adopt the new way of operating in order to reinforce the commitment to change. (Action: Upper management)

4. Spread revitalization to all levels without pushing it from “favored staff.”

Avoid the temptation to “announce” the recommendations to staff through school administration or through staff members who are perceived to hold special favor with leadership. Doing so will be counterproductive. Allow groups to own their ideas by developing them within committee. Doing so will result in staff committing themselves to new attitudes and processes. (Action: Committees)

5. Institutionalize revitalization through formal policies, systems and structures

Place employees on task-aligned teams that pull together information to determine what new information needs to go out about requirements. This should be enacted once everyone can identify potential needs. Formal structures come with flaws. Leveraging teams to foster agreement at this stage will minimize imperfections and foster understanding of various interdependencies. (Action: School/Administration)

6. Monitor & adjust strategies in response to problems in the revitalization process

The best change processes hold their subordinates responsible for beginning a change program without specifying a particular approach. At this stage, constant monitoring is required. Employee satisfaction surveys can be included, recording staff absenteeism and other like events can serve as a metric for success. (Action: All parties)

NEXT STEPS:

Change small habits to create big wins. Specifically, open office doors, open office blinds, walk through hallways, check on staff periodically, greet staff with a genuine smile and look them in their eyes when they walk in.

Engage staff with positive conversations and helpful advice-- that is not always necessarily related to work responsibilities. Following these actions aims for the heart of staff complaints-- that their organization’s leaders do not care for them as people.

“People won’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

-Teddy Roosevelt

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