New Technology High School celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2016-2017. It cannot be without great energy, focus, and effort that a school as unique as ours can sustain and grow for two decades. At the heart of our work is our students. And at the heart of our students is our culture. Ask any visitor that has come over the past 20 years, and it will be one of the first things they point to and one of the first things our staff and students are willing to open up about.
However, it is not without great persistence that our culture has been developed. Like any organization or collective of people, it is vital to protect, organize, and transform. In her 2006 work, Anthropology and Social Theory, UCLA professor Sherry B. Ortner dives deeper into how cultures evaluate their existence. She writes, “Every culture, every subculture, every historical moment, constructs its own forms of agency, its own modes of enacting the process of reflecting on the self and the world and of acting simultaneously within and upon what one finds there.” I find this profound when reflecting upon our own work at New Tech High. What forms of agency and reflection do we have in place to truly examine the validity of our culture? Here are a couple of ways, I believe we can continue to transform our culture:
Knowing vs. Living
Our schools culture is built upon trust, respect, and responsibility. Nearly 200 schools in the New Tech Network that have come since the opening of New Tech High have built their pillars on this same foundation. However, to truly transform culture, we must move from KNOWING what our culture is to manifesting how we LIVE our culture.
For example, a simple Google search can tell me that respect means to have a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. But what does that look like in action? How do I interact with someone that I might feel doesn’t deserve my respect? Being able to articulate how we know our culture into actionable actualizations of it is key.
As well as this, to truly transform culture, it is important that I empower people to have the autonomy to act. What if one person breaks my trust? Do I create a rule that the other 99.9% must follow now? Not putting up barriers to living out the culture is important to create opportunities for cultural growth to happen.
Resting on Your Laurels
One of the hardest parts of having a powerful school culture is not resting on our laurels. In examining this, I will highlight a few points from the 2012 HBR article, “Cultural Change That Sticks“:
- Honor the Strengths of Your Existing Culture – not resting on your laurels doesn’t mean you throw out what has been working. It is important to highlight the core components of your culture, the people that exemplify it, and create opportunities to deepen it.
- Match Strategy and Culture – one of the trickiest things to do when not resting on your laurels is making sure the strategies you are implementing will produce the cultural outcomes you desire. Change is hard, but as time goes by, it might mean that strategies and structures need to evolve with it.
There is no end point in school culture. There is no end point in innovation. There is no end point in creating amazing educational experiences. It is hard work. But when done right, a school can go from resting on what has worked in the past to transforming it before toxicity can creep in.
School vs. Class vs. Self
Is everyone in your organization culturally aligned? How do you know? School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert has some powerful tools to help you measure your school’s cultural health. Why is this important? Many times, the norms and policies our schools have in place, classroom expectations set out by teachers, or individual behaviors and beliefs get in the way of transforming culture.
One good example of this was our school’s cell phone policy. We promoted a culture of openness, student ownership, and modeled after the workplace. However, our cell phone policy was punitive and counterproductive. In working with various stakeholders, we transformed the policy to mirror the cultural outcomes we desire. Was it an easy transition? Did everyone buy-in? Of course not. However, it is vital that policies, mindsets, and beliefs at the school, class, and individual level are aligned to those overarching cultural outcomes for a culture to thrive.
What Comes Next?
As the world transforms around us, it is vital that we are constantly examining, evaluating, and protecting the culture we have created. Recently in re:Work, a group from Google examined the role psychological safety plays when people work together. Continuing to grow our culture where EVERY adult and student feels comfortable learning from failure, sharing ideas, and innovating off of one another must be at the forefront of our work. Our most recent California Healthy Kids Survey let us know that we have a lot of work still to do. Many of our students experience depression, deal with or know someone that deals with personal substance issues, and for some, “school” is the only stable part of their lives. It is imperative that we help make the transition for acknowledging that our culture is unique to creating new avenues for people to live out the transformation that is possible.