Leadership Lessons: Assessing and Shifting School Culture

Spring 2022

By Ivy Alphonse-Crean

sol-cotti-leadership_.jpgThis article appeared as “Ways of Seeing” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.

In a chapter I wrote for Teaching Beautiful Brilliant Black Girls (2021), I described independent school culture as something of a fog, both visible and intangible, difficult to hold yet easy to breathe in as one moves through it.
As a former teacher for six years and grade-level dean for three years, my understanding of school culture was initially focused on emotional responses. I would read the world around me through others’ emotions, using specific incidents, conflicts, and resolutions to ultimately take the temperature of a school’s culture. I spent a good deal of time holding emotions for myself and others, which I imagine is a common experience among educators, particularly educators of color. I stumbled through forming adult affinity spaces, holding emotions that were expressed during our meetings. Or, sometimes, in the hallway, I’d gain valuable experience with channeling emotions into meaningful conversations and proposals, and I tried to ensure that there was space for folks to express those authentic reactions to a culture that was not initially formed with them in mind.
But as I grew into a facilitation role, and now that I am taking in the 30,000-foot view of my current school as the newly minted director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), my thoughts on how to assess and shift the culture of an institution have moved from one of feeling to doing. I am discovering that holes in equity and inclusion live in the gaps that institutions have yet to account for. I no longer exclusively rely on emotional appeals to understand school culture but instead look to and examine its structures and systems as they are, have been, and should be, particularly ones that are assumed to be neutral or functioning correctly.
A January/February 2018 Harvard Business Review article, “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture,” makes the distinction that “culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.” The values of an institution are but one part of its overall culture. But these core values can be felt in the interactions of a community. They can be seen in the artwork displayed, the books that are chosen, the plays that are lovingly performed for families and caregivers.
In marketing materials for independent schools across the country, there are phrases like “take a look in our classrooms, in our hallways, and you will see the kind of school community we are.” And you will, to an extent—those deep values are often held in the seemingly fixed structures that determine so much of who we are, what we do, and, ultimately, what we deem valuable.
But the bones—the structures and systems that exist—hinge together with core values to reveal a community’s culture. Often, the most deeply held values are unarticulated verbally but play out conspicuously in what an institution chooses to focus on, highlight, or applaud. Sometimes, the complexity of deciphering core values becomes clear when school leaders begin to decode hallowed school rituals, sports events, and gatherings. Together, these values clearly show who is included and who is not.

Digging In

Many educators have spent time decoding the layers of culture and its manifestations. In Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, she offers the image of the Culture Tree, an accessible way to understand the different facets of a culture. Hammond notes the leaves, or surface culture, that are easy to observe; the trunk, or shallow culture, which is unspoken yet palpable; and, finally, the deep culture, or the roots, which make up unconscious beliefs and norms.
I began my most recent interview process by understanding what and who make up this school community. When I stepped onto campus, I added layers of understanding to my initial impression. In July, before students arrived back, and again in September as the halls began to fill, I took stock of the “leaves”—the changes that are light, airy, and easy to access. I learned that my school was in the midst of shifting surface culture, as we began to acknowledge and honor more holidays, put up representative artwork, and evaluate literature.
Next, I took on examining the school’s shallow and deep culture, which was a little trickier, as these aspects of culture are less explicitly stated and less visible. From past experiences, I’ve found that the systems that seem most ordinary and obvious are the ones that can reveal the most telling biases and systemic inequities. I like to begin with scheduling, grading and comment writing protocols, and behavioral management systems. These can betray those hidden aspects of deep culture, the unknowns that only become apparent when one has tripped over them.
Is there a clear system for delivering graded feedback? Are teachers held to the same standards when it comes to posting assignments for students and families to access? Are all teachers providing the same information around their grade breakdown for students? Are all classes graded? How long is recess? When does lunch fall? Are there periods for co-curricular activities? Are all classes using technology? Are all classes using paper?
On the surface, these questions have little to do with representation or diversity. And yet, structures matter, profoundly, from an equity perspective. When a particular structure impacts identifiable groups in grossly disparate ways, it’s time to take a closer look. Disparate impact often means inequity and disadvantage for one or some identifiable groups. While it might be overly idealistic to expect any system to be uniformly equitable, I believe we have an obligation to ameliorate configurations that result in gross, measurable disparities. 

Examining the Roots

Through my process of examining structures, inevitably, the next step is to engage in thoughtful conversations about areas that lack consistency. Consider what happens if teachers are able to choose whether to post assignments or class information on a school’s learning management system. This might not pose an issue for students who are always “fine.” But for students who are not neurotypical, those whose parents depend on being able to check the planner against the teacher’s online postings, that inconsistency might profoundly affect their child’s nightly preparation. It might have visible academic and social consequences for a student.
The number of schedule blocks might not matter—clubs can happen before or after school. But how does that structure impact students with a significant commute? And how does an effective inability to participate in extracurricular activities affect college and other important life choices? These are not just theoretical questions. They are the stuff that propels potential disparity and may create gross inequity at the end of the day.
What if lunchtime for middle school students is early in the day? There might be behavioral issues in the afternoon simply because they’re hungry by that time. What does that structure then do to a student overwhelmed with after-school activities who won’t have dinner until much later? Or, what about students who have no eating schedule at home? Does your school accommodate or address those students who might have food insecurity issues? We need to make the school experience as safe as possible for as many students as possible. The more flexible and accommodating schedules, meals, and optional activities can be, the better the chance of welcoming many more and many different kinds of learners and their home cultures. 
Some of the other questions I asked as part of my culture assessment were focused on the experiences of faculty and staff: Do faculty members who need to drop off children to child care experience stress/disadvantage/setbacks because of this daily obligation? And what about those who tend to their elders, volunteer at food kitchens, or otherwise have revolving responsibilities that render their schedules inflexible or somehow “different”?
I asked questions like, do grade-level teachers and departments have the ability to meet regularly—if not, how might that impact intentional, consistent anti-bias work that you may want to weave throughout your curriculum? How will you know if your assessments are as fair as possible?

Pruning and Nourishing

What does it mean to guide a community along its journey to become more equitable and inclusive? Many educators have asked themselves this question, and I’ve even been asked how it pertains to my role. I’ve come to the conclusion that, on the one hand, the job is listening to people’s stories, to their needs, and providing a space where they can feel heard and valued. The job is also listening to those stories and finding the spine behind the words, the systemic factor that contributed to a negative or positive experience. Then, having identified that factor, one discerns how and if to address it.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not words we use to simply make people feel better, though that can be a wonderful impact of this work. These are words we should use to interrogate our structures and systems to better understand, ultimately, what our school’s culture does or does not allow for in the DEI space. Then, the question becomes, what must we nourish within our communities, and what must we consider pruning as we shift toward a more inclusive future.
Ivy Alphonse-Crean

Ivy Alphonse-Crean is director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Dedham Country Day in Dedham, Massachusetts.