Friday, July 29, 2011

Beyond Mission Statements: Finding Integrity between Word & Action

Our school has a well crafted mission and vision statement.  It would make any school or organization proud.  It provides us with the strategic direction (in word) that we need.  But I've had a growing question lately:  Do our actions match what we say? In other words, “What are we doing and why are we doing it”? 

Linked to this idea of mission and vision statements is the idea of "culture".
“Culture is the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges.” (Deal, 1993) 
As the principal I see myself as the guardian of the school’s culture.  One of my favorite researchers on this topic is Edgar Schein.  In his research he identifies three levels of organizational or school culture: the artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions. 

According to Schein, a school’s artifacts are those things that are easy to observe but more difficult to decipher (e.g. trophy cases, pictures, classrooms, etc).  Artifacts can be ambiguous and are often dependant on the observer’s reference point (Schein, 2004).  Schein goes further and states that to find a deeper level of understanding of a culture one must move to identifying the espoused values of a school (e.g. all children can learn, safe and caring community, etc).  The values themselves fall on a variety of levels.  At the outset, a culture’s values might not be shared knowledge; they must be tested over time (Schein, 2004).  Once a group’s values are reinforced through such things as problem solving, stories, traditions, and celebration than those values can become basic assumptions

Schein argues that these assumptions are the root of an organization’s culture and are so strongly held that any behavior based on a different premise in inconceivable (Schein, 2004).  These basic assumptions, according to Schein, are at the core of understanding organizational culture.  Good or bad, these assumptions are so entrenched in the group that, at times, it can be the cause of the distortion, or rationalization of certain realities.  As such, the challenge for leaders is to identify the assumptions of a culture, assess them and come up with coping strategies to deal with the anxiety when you try to change them.  

2011-2012 Getting off of the right foot

To start the 2011-2012 school year, we will be asking  ourselves some important questions related to our shared sense of purpose contained within our school culture.  For us to be more successful as a school we need to ask ourselves  - are our stated values and visible artifacts congruent with what we believe and do – across all stakeholder groups?  Put another way - does our "talk" match our "walk"?

To accomplish this, we will have to test whether or not our stated values are being matched by the actions of our stakeholders – in this case, the professional teaching staff of the school.

The following is a sample of some of the espoused values at our school and some guiding questions to test our underlying assumptions: 

We educate the whole child. 
Testing underlying assumptions:  
How is teaching and learning conducted in the classroom?  How much differentiation is happening?  Is technology being embraced?
How do we assess and grade our students?  
Are learning opportunities extended beyond the classroom?
What extra-curricular activities do we provide our students?

All children can learn.
Testing underlying assumptions  
Do our actions affirm our belief that all kids can learn?  Does our assessment and grading reflect this?  What does success look like for students?
Do you follow the pyramid of intervention effectively and consistently?
Do we understand the different ways that students learn?  (Brain based learning)
Do our school polices related to such things as admission, discipline, grading & reporting align with this stated value?
Who is control of the learning in the classroom?  What will an observer see when walking thru classes?  Who is doing the talking?  How are students being engaged?

“Jesus is the reason for our school”
Testing underlying assumptions
How does this translate across the curriculum?  
Do our school policies match this value statement?

Parents as primary educators and partners
Testing underlying assumptions
How and what do we communicate to our parents? 
Are parents given enough voice?   

Working and learning in community
Testing underlying assumptions
How is teaching and learning conducted in the classroom? 
How is our PLC time being used?
What does collegiality look like?
How do we treat each other?
How do we celebrate together?

I am looking forward to leading the staff in this important process (before school starts) of finding integrity between our words and actions. 

This process is critically important in order for us to sustain a positive school culture - where there is a shared sense of purpose, where there are underlying norms of collegiality, where there is a focus on improvement, where student accomplishments are celebrated, where there is teacher innovation, where we encourage parental involvement, where meaningful traditions are maintained and where learning is surrounded with integrity, joy and humour. 

Any suggestions or comments that could assist in us finding greater “alignment” would be gratefully welcomed!

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