Sunday, December 2, 2012

A culture that makes the obsolete impossible

I'm at the Google Summit, and also reading through my Twitterstream and just came across a link to a blog that I've not seen before.   As we're learning so many new things here, I think it is very relevant to ask the question:  what do you do about teachers who simply don't want to change the way they do things, who just don't want to move on and try out something new?  One method of dealing with this was advocated by someone I once worked with who made life so horrible for people who didn't fit in that they ended up becoming sick and leaving.  The really awful thing about this, though, was that this was a school that did not have a supportive culture - teachers were not encouraged to try things out, make mistakes and learn from them as that was seen as damaging the reputation of the school.  The fear of failure was so palpable and the consequences so dire that very few teachers wanted to try out anything new that might possibly lead them to being in the spotlight, so the end result was that the school in fact did not move forward.  Ironic, really.

J Robinson, on his blog The 21st Century Principal, asks:  What would a school that has a culture that makes obsolete impossible look like?  I feel I can answer this question, because I am now working in such a place.  Here's J Robinson's suggestions:

  • an expectation of personal and professional growth, a culture of lifelong learning and professional development.  This is certainly true of ASB and I think I have mentioned in previous blog posts how many opportunities I've been given for professional development both inside and outside the school.
  • the school culture values risk-taking more than playing safe.  At ASB our culture of research and development means we are prototyping new things (some of which we may decide we don't want to adopt).  J Robinson points out something very important here:  leaders can't ask others to take risks if they themselves aren't willing to do so.
  • leadership in the school includes more than the principal.  Teachers at ASB are encouraged to be leaders and every single committee that exists does so because teachers have volunteered to be part of it.  J Robinson writes that having teacher leaders means that peers are the ones who are pushing other teachers to grow professionally. 
  • collaboration is the norm - everyone is part of the solution, everyone owns the future of the school which leads to teachers feeling that the school is "their school" and that they have a voice in its direction.  
So how do you get a school culture like this?  Well clearly it is mostly down to the leadership of the school and here our leaders are forward thinking and inspirational: I can feel their energy and passion and their commitment to the school's mission, values and goals.  I love listening to our school administrators, I love reading the things they are writing and the questions they are asking, I love the way they are thought-leaders.  I love the honesty and integrity that is shown in the way they live their beliefs and values.  I love the way they listen to us and communicate with us and value us all and the contribution we are making to the education of the students.  I love their passion for what they are doing.  I love the way that they say that great just isn't good enough.  I appreciate that they are real and not fakes.  If we all admire these things (which it seems we do) and all aspire to emulate them, then clearly we are striving to move forward, to be the best we can be, and obsolescence is therefore impossible.

This is actually the 3rd international school where I've worked that has had this culture.  At a time when I'm hearing that in countries like the UK and the USA teacher morale is low and stress levels are high, I feel I've been blessed to spend 90% of my teaching career at schools where the culture was a forward thinking and supportive one, and where I was supported as a learner as well as being a teacher.


  1. Wow, Maggie, great post! I wish I could be there and experience that culture. I'm sure I would echo your last paragraph.

    I'm curious if you know some history of your school before you arrived. Was there a switch to a new culture from a more traditional culture? Were there any teachers who couldn't do it, who chose to leave your school because their kind of teaching was becoming obsolete and they couldn't change?

    Or was your school begun with a wonderful culture?

    Have fun in a great place!

  2. Hi Denise, Some of these questions are hard to answer because I was not actually here. I think the school has been moving in this direction for a number of years - perhaps 5 years or so. I don't know of any teachers who left during those years did so because they couldn't or wouldn't change. I know some left because they found it hard to live in India, and others left for new opportunities/promotions/family issues and so on. Turnover tends to be high in international schools in developing countries, however last year not one primary homeroom teacher left the school, and this year is a similar pattern. A couple of teachers have and are moving to new internal positions that are being created to support us as we move forward.