How to Reset the Culture In Your International School: A Case Study

by Dr Liam Hammer

Introduction

As Osterwalder et al. (2016) say, Don’t let your company culture just happen”. If you are not driving the culture in your school, then others will be. Recently, at the International School of Lusaka, our staff spent some time reviewing our school culture because “every school has a culture, and every school can improve its culture” (Wagner & Masden-Copas, 2002).

We started by reviewing our proposed new vision: “ISL is recognised as one of the best international schools in Africa, empowering students to be transformational leaders” because we ground everything we do with our school vision. As part of this exercise, we reviewed Simon Sinek’s TEdTalk, asking us to start with our ‘Why’. 

Reviewing Our School Culture

We then spent some time exploring what culture is, and what we think our culture at ISL is in small group discussions and with wider sharing. Finally, everyone completed a school culture triage survey designed by Penelope Masden-Copas. This is a simple School Leader’s Tool for Assessing and Improving School Culture. 

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that our school culture at the International School of Lusaka is in good health, scoring 63 out of 85.

Through this school culture triage survey, we identified the top three areas in which we can improve;

  1. Teachers and staff visit/talk/meet outside of the school to enjoy each others’ company.
  2. When something is not working in our school, the faculty and staff predict and prevent rather than react and repair.
  3. Members of our school community seek to define the problem/ issue rather than blame others.

and our top three areas of strength (which we hope to build and maintain):

  1. Teachers and staff are involved in the decision-making process with regard to materials and resources. 
  2. Our school reflects a true “sense” of community.
  3. There is a rich and robust tradition of rituals and celebrations, including holidays, special events, and recognition of goal attainment.

What did not surprise us was the area that represents our greatest strength is “People work here because they enjoy and choose to be here” given that we have no staff wanting to leave our school year is a testament to that.

Action Planning to Improve Our Culture 

In subsequent meetings, we then sat with staff to co-create action plans based on those top three areas for improvement. For example, in the area that highlighted that not all staff think they are good at spending time with each other outside of the school, our staff social committee has been tasked to create a yearly calendar of optional social events to give our staff a chance to meet outside of school, should they so wish to. The action plan on the area related to defining the problem/issue rather than blaming others has two parts: one part is education and reminders to all to be a little more independent in finding solutions instead of blame, and the second part of having middle and senior leadership encourage and allow staff to fix problems, but also another element is having support staff more actively fixing problems and communicating this before others start to notice the problem. 

Our action plan relating to our successes asks us to document our traditions of rituals and celebrations in order to ensure that we continue building on this strength and do not forget any in the future. 

Summary 

“School culture requires consistent care” (Wagner & Masden-Copas, 2002). You need to be intentional about your culture if you wish to drive it in the direction you need. Spend some time having your staff review your culture, and then you can be in a place to begin improving it. There are a number of different tools out there, at ISL we found that Wagner and Masden-Copas’ tool helpful!

References

Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., & Guppta, avi. (2016, September 24). Don’t let your company culture just happen. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/07/dont-let-your-company-culture-just-happen

Wagner, C., & Masden-Copas, P. (2002). An Audit of the Culture Starts with Two Handy Words. Journal of staff development, 23(3), 42-53. 

Liam Hammer is the Head of School at the International School of Lusaka, Zambia

To connect with Liam on LinkedIn, click Here

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