Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast by Janet Ciarrocca

Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

Munch, munch, crunch crunch.  That is the sound of your new school initiative being eaten alive by your school’s culture.  Without combining work on strengthening culture into any new initiative, the work is often doomed to failure.  Many school leaders jump into new initiatives with the thought that they can implement new things easily  and they simply need staff ‘buy-in.”  They imagine that they can impact school and student growth with positive messages and well planned initiatives so that all of the teachers will jump on board.   However, the phrase, Culture eats strategy for breakfast, should be a guiding one for any school or district leader planning the rollout of any new initiative or work.  The phrase was first used in the business world, but it has strong implications for schools.

Every school has a culture..good, bad, or indifferent.  It is imperative that leaders, and that includes teacher leaders, take a reflective view on the existing culture in their building.  Because as a leader, you need to realize, that any time your hard planned strategy conflicts with existing culture, the culture will win every time….EVERY TIME!!  Whether that means having teachers let students into their classes upon arrival or getting buy in for teachers to visit one another to observe lessons, or reach out more often to parents, your school’s culture will have a strong impact on whether or not planned initiatives succeed. 

Don’t let culture eat strategy for breakfast, have them feed each other.

School culture, according to Dr. Kent D. Peterson, a professor in Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is “the set of norms, values, and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of a school.”   It refers to those written and unwritten rules that influence how a school or organization functions.  For instance, many veteran teachers will just avoid any new initiative and might passively resist it, waiting for they time that “this too” goes away….as most other initiatives seem to do eventually. 

This is not to say that a leader cannot make changes in their organization’s culture.  Awareness is the first step.  Start by conducting surveys of staff, students, and parents.  Many school climate surveys exist that can be found find through your state or by doing a quick internet search.  The schools in our district have been using the CAR framework to drive school improvement.  Rather than looking at work on many different priorities as “new initiatives,” the CAR framework connects them all together into one cohesive framework to drive school improvement efforts.   The three sides of this triangular model focus on school culture: 1) a climate for learning – for students and adults in the building; 2) a climate of communication of connections and high expectations;  and 3) a culture of shared leadership.  Focusing in on those three key cultural elements in your school can begin to build a strong foundation of a positive culture in which ALL stakeholders, both staff and students, are actively engaged in a culture of learning and working together for the best of the school. 

You will not and cannot expect to change a school’s climate and culture overnight.  Be aware of the power of culture.  With strategic planning and concrete steps to build a positive culture that brings your staff into the work through shared leadership and reflection, you can truly begin to shift your school’s culture. You must help drive the change by changing the way people in the organization think and work.  This is not easy work and cannot be done alone.  It is imperative for  school leaders to SHARE leadership in their building and to use that shared leadership with staff as an element to build a positive school culture.

Such work will ensure that any initiatives you hope to see implemented are part of a collaborative, strategically planned strategy, and ensures that the culture of your organization doesn’t “each your strategy for breakfast!”

Plan for it and make it work for you.