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Understanding School Culture

 They All Have Students, Buildings, Boards — But Each Is a Unique Place

Spring 1993
When I was down in the Washington, D.C. area last year I visited four different schools on four consecutive days, on the fourth day someone asked me, "Don't they all start to look the same to you?"

My reaction to the question was one of disbelief, even outrage. For a moment, I couldn't believe someone could have such an idea about schools. Then I realized that the questioner was not involved in school life.

Viewed from a sufficient distance, of course, all schools do look the same. They are schools, not airplane factories or dairy farms; they look like schools and they are run as schools. Viewed close-up, they are extraordinarily different. And the closer you get, the more different they look. Each has a distinctive feel.

This "feel" is so pervasive and powerful that we all experience it immediately when we walk into a school. We are so accustomed to this experience that we worry about a school that lacks a particular flavor. Somehow it hasn't been lived in, it doesn't have a history, it doesn't have a personality. We are not yet experiencing its culture.

Once we do feel a school's culture, however, it leaves a strong imprint on us. The combination of the architecture, the symbols, the artifacts, the look and behavior of the people, the conversations we had, the treatment we received, all this and much more creates an unforgettable set of memories.

The paradox of culture is that it is so often difficult to articulate exactly what we have experienced in a school, of course, some anecdotal events are easy to describe, some artifacts stand out, but the deeper levels of culture are often tough to capture in words or to conceptualize. The fault lies in the nature of culture. It is pervasive, obvious, omnipresent, and at the same time invisible, ephemeral, and terribly complex.

You feel a culture most strongly when you are a stranger, particularly in a foreign land. As travelers we welcome the experience of another culture. It wakes us up and makes us question our assumptions. I never go abroad without having the feeling that as an American I do certain things wrong, that I need to change my life. The longer one stays, of course, the more complicated the response to the other culture and the more homesick one is for one's own familiar cultural assumptions.

What shocks and pleases us about an outsider's observations of our culture is that we get to see ourselves in a fresh light. That is why we responded so strongly to Lorene Cary's vision of St. Paul's School in Black Ice. That is why we still teach Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

The only other time you feel a culture as strongly is when you try to change the way people do things. In The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (Allyn and Bacon), Seymour Sarason points out that it is really only when you challenge people's bedrock assumptions that you come to see what those assumptions really are and how ferociously people will fight to defend them.

What is school culture?
In The Principal's Role in Shaping School Culture (U.S. Department of Education) Terence Deal and Kent Peterson point out is that culture is only one of several ways of viewing a school, and that each alternative point of view arises from a separate discipline.

To look at a school from the point of view of the needs of its people, be they students, teachers or administrators, is essentially a psychological analysis. To focus on the structure and operations of a school is sociological; to analyze the governance structure and the school constituencies is to view it through the lens of political science or economics. The cultural view arises from anthropology.

If asked, anyone could give a quick definition of culture. The definitions would certainly include a number of nouns: "beliefs," "values," "patterns of behavior," "art," and "climate." Those who have studied anthropology might more easily give a complete definition. However, what exactly is meant by school culture and how does cultural theory help us understand schools?

According to Deal and Peterson, to focus on culture means to look at its "deep pattern of values, beliefs and traditions that have been formed over the course of its history."

For Edgar Shein, a social psychologist who teaches at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., culture in organizations exists at three levels. At the most immediate level are the art and technology of an organization, and the visible and audible behavior patterns. These patterns are not, however, always easy to decipher.

At the second level are values, testable in the physical environment and testable by obtaining social consensus. Values are the enshrined solutions to organizational and human problems that arose in the past and were solved. The solutions become beliefs and prescriptions: "You ought to do it this way. This is the right way to do it."

If you only see the two top levels of culture, you miss its most important aspects, Schein writes, aspects that "operate unconsciously, and that define in a basic 'taken-for-granted' fashion an organization's view of itself and its environment." These are basic unconscious beliefs about the nature of man, the nature of the environment and the nature of human relationships. These beliefs are so deeply ingrained in us that we very rarely are conscious that they are beliefs. We generally experience them as "truth" or "the way things are."

One of the things we take absolutely for granted is the existence of schools themselves, and the order of things in schools. Seymour Sarason professes to be confused by why we teach reading and numbers to first graders. He goes around and asks teachers and administrators, "Why must first grade children be exposed to such instruction....?" He says that his intellectual questions are experienced as an attack on the culture and workings of the school, and the answer he gets is finally "The way things are is the way things should be." Alternative ways of structuring school life are seen, clearly or dimly, as requiring changes within individuals and within the structure.

At the deepest of the three levels, culture is experienced by individuals as the natural order of things. Take the business consultant cited in Deal and Kennedy's Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life (AddisonWesley). His definition? Culture is "the way we do things around here." Can you feel the conservatism and resistance inherent in that statement?

Why understand culture?
White, male, American culture is under assault from within and without. Many subcultures within this country do not experience mainstream cultural assumptions as natural or valid.. . and are saying so. Most particularly, women and people of color are challenging the assumptive basis of white male culture. (Not only in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are there are bumper stickers cheerfully proclaiming, "Tip the Patriarchy"!)

As one of the members of Lorene Cary's Third World Coalition group said to the others about St. Paul's School, "This community has the feeling that everything's just fine, and it's not, and we need to keep saying that, by any means possible."

Persistent, insightful and angry subcultural challenge is the near future for our society and for our schools. Many independent school people have accepted the rightness of the challenge and have embraced the necessity for change. However, change is going to challenge our most fundamental assumptions and some of our oxen are going to be gored in the process. For our schools to become more multicultural, we are going to have to give up familiar notions to which we are more wedded than we know.

As schools try to change, as schools try to become more multicultural, it will be necessary to understand one's own reactions and resistances. It will be necessary for the head of a school to be able to articulate the process to the members of the school community. A greater understanding of school and organizational culture will permit that to happen.

What is culture's function in an organization? Edgar Schein's book Organizational Culture and Leadership (Jossey-Bass) offers an answer to that question. For Schein, organizational culture has two purposes: to define the group's response to its central problem with the external environment, and to help maintain internal relationships within the organization.

Most schools"'central problem" is defining why they are there and what they offer to people that no one else offers. one head said to me that her major challenge was convincing people that her school had something to offer when the public schools in her town had class sizes of 18. Group consensus on the "survival problem" is the central pillar of group culture. Much of the school community's identity and purpose arise from a shared vision of what the school is doing. Without such a vision of the external problem the group will fall apart.

Every member of a school community is either part of the cultural mission of the school, an obstacle to that mission, or part of a subculture with a different mission. When a school runs into survival difficulties and begins to lose students, the culture is threatened. Its goals and means are called into question. It is failing according to its own criteria for success. If its efforts to correct its course and become successful again don't work, the group will begin to fall apart and so will the culture. If a school isn't needed by the external environment, then the culture has no problem to solve, no goals to generate, no reason to represent group beliefs and identity.

A group needs cultural guideposts to achieve internal consensus, to speak the same language, to harness individual aggression into well-recognized strata of power and status.

The leader and school culture
All writers on organizational and school culture agree that a school leader must be, first and foremost, a cultural leader. As educator Thomas Sergiovanni says, "What a leader stands for is more important that what he or she does... Leadership acts are expressions of culture."

It is around the leader as stable "center" that the culture can grow. If there is no official cultural center, there will be no cement to hold the group together and "wild" centers will spring up as a natural response to group needs. It is up to the leader to domesticate such i wild" centers.

Leaders embed and transmit culture. They do not have a choice about whether they communicate; everything they do is a communication. They only have a choice about how and what and how consistently they will communicate. The primary methods available to leaders to allow them to shape culture are paying consistent attention to and measuring some chosen aspect of school life. If a head is consistently interested in one thing, it will become a centerpiece of school culture. If a head is inconsistently interested in many things, or unclear about why he or she hires and fires, people will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what interests the head. The leader's inconsistency will become a central feature of school culture.

According to Deal and Peterson, school heads act in five ways to shape school culture. First, heads are symbols who affirm the values they espouse through behavior, routine, what they pay attention to, and even how they dress or decorate their offices. Second, school heads are potters who shape and are shaped by the school's heroes, rituals, ceremonies and symbols. Third, school heads are poets who use language to reinforce the school's best image of itself. Fourth, heads are actors who improvise in the school's inevitable dramas and in so doing dramatize their values and visions. These dramas are extremely important in setting out the fundamental values of the school. Fifth and finally, heads are healers who preside over the life transitions that affect the school community, helping all to express the pain or grief or joy that attend the inevitable deaths and births and retirements.

At a reunion of a "New Heads Institute" at last year's NAIS Conference in San Francisco, I was struck by how many funerals these new heads had already presided over, and how it had affected them personally and simultaneously established them firmly in charge of the cultural lives of their schools. By acting as healers, they had become part of the cultural fabric of their schools.

The "shadow" aspect of school life
Culture contains the "shadow" aspect of school life. School culture is where the skeletons are buried. No school admits its troubles in its mission statement; no school acknowledges problems in its formal governance structure. It is in the culture that the secrets, conflicts, contradictions, hatreds and uglinesses are contained. As my brother, an organizational consultant in Chicago, says, "Even Saddam Hussein could write a wonderful mission statement."

Every school has some conflicts and some schools have many contradictions alive and at work. Consider George Orwell's description of the pre-war British prep school Crossgates in his essay "Such, Such Were the Days":
"The various codes which were presented to you at Crossgates — religious, moral, social and intellectual — contradicted one another if you worked out their implications... on the one side were lowchurch Bible Christianity, sex Puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for braininess and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible."
This comes uncomfortably close to the present. I have spoken to parents at an independent school in an extremely wealthy suburb and had them ask me about how they can help their children with values. They told me that one girl in seventh grade had been ruthlessly and cruelly teased because she was discovered to be wearing clothes from Sears. They asked me how these attitudes could be changed. My answer was "with great difficulty, because the children's attitudes are part of a cultural problem." I observed that the parking lot was at that moment filled almost exclusively with BMW's, Saabs, and Mercedes. It is hard for children not to be label conscious when their parents are equally label conscious.

My colleague, Ned Hallowell, has said to me that class, wealth and power are the dirty secrets of independent schools and that it is necessary to be more open about them. What is clear is that they are secrets only to those in the school. They are obvious to outsiders. Carl Jung, who wrote so much about the shadow in the life of individuals, said that when people are standing looking toward the bright sunlight they do not see their own shadows, but others can see them stretching right behind them. As is the case with individuals, schools often look into the sunlight and try to hide from consciousness that which is painful, conflict ridden, contradictory or ugly about their deepest realities and beliefs.

Every school has a "shadow" side that is denied by the members of the community. If a school head runs into resistance to change, bad behavior by faculty or parents, or some other puzzling and unpleasant aspect of community life, he or she is probably encountering the behavioral manifestations of some deep belief about human behavior or "the system" that members of the community would generally deny is part of the school's belief system. For example, when parents bully teachers in an attempt to win something for their children, they reveal that they do not believe that their children are being taught in a loving community; they demonstrate that they really understand the school to be a dog-eat-dog environment. When faculty speak harshly of children, it is often the result of envy, or anger that they are not as supported as the children.

When these assumptions are brought to light, the typical reaction is defensiveness and denial. None of us likes to have our pessimism, our prejudices and our fears revealed or questioned.

If you are going to fully understand your school, you need to understand the dark assumptive worlds of the members of the community — including your own. The leader of the school is the one who must confront and articulate the "shadow" aspect of the school. It is usually he or she who can give permission to the community to confront unhappy aspects of itself — although I have noticed that in many schools the leader gets help from a gadfly or truth-teller who performs that function.

School heads are in a tough position. They have to be honest about their schools, and at the same time they must have and hold an inspiring, idealistic vision of what the school can be. The tension between those two is quite real. It is inevitable that a head will have blind spots about his or her own school's culture, particularly a long-standing head in a community where the culture has come to embody many aspects of his or her personality.

Understanding your own school's culture
Whether you are trustee or head, teacher or parent, you must ask "How do I come to better understand my schools culture?" The process is called "cultural analysis" and is best conducted, at least in part, by an outsider. For example, some schools have prepared themselves for multiculturalism by conducting a cultural assessment that sets the stage for change, and gives them a hard look at themselves. (For a further exploration of this process, please see the article in this Spring 1993 issue "Lessons Learned from the MAP," on page 47. — Ed.)

Edgar Schein says that it is possible to give insiders insight into their own organization by discussions about the deep assumptions of the group concerning reality, human activist, the identity of the school, and so on. These can be quite revealing. I have had such talks with faculty about the nature of children, and the nature of children and parents. The talks arise out of specific problems, for example an elementary school that consistently has trouble with boys. As the teachers and administrators and I began to discuss the nature of boys, the differences between boys and girls, the nature of the school environment, the assumptive worlds of teachers become evident to each other. Everyone is always startled by the range of differences and the power of certain beliefs. And everyone comes to see how their assumptions affect the jobs they do in schools.

If I could make one recommendation it would be for schools to find ways to discuss their deepest beliefs and attitudes about the nature of human life and human learning, and about the true functioning of the school environment. Use every opportunity to see yourself and your school through the eyes of outsiders, and try to understand what they see. Most schools are so absorbed in the intense day-to-day work of educating children that they lose perspective and hunger for some outside view.

To visit schools is to become an instant anthropologist, one of the questions I am asked most frequently in schools is, "Well, you've seen us...what do you think?" That question is only the prelude to a dialogue that will help the insider to see herself or himself more clearly. It is most powerful when outside observation can be combined with inside discussion that will illuminate the school culture for its own members.

At the time this article originally ran, Michael G. Thompson was a clinical psychologist and school consultant practicing in Cambridge, Massacusetts. This article was adapted from a talk he gave at the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington's conference for school heads in 1992. A longer version of the piece subsequently appeared in Finding the Heart of the Child: Essays on Children, Families and Schools, published by the National Association of Independent Schools in 1997.  To order, call 202-793-6701.  He has subseqently authored or co-authored several books on the psychological health of children, most recently It's a Boy: Your Son''s Development from Birth to Age 18, with Teresa Barker, due in March 2008 from Ballantine Books.
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