What It Takes to Create a Positive Work Culture From All Sides

Spring 2022

By Amoy Walker

fromallsides-(1).jpgThis article appeared as “From All Sides” in the Spring 2022 issue of Independent School.
 
In 2008, I transitioned from teaching in a New York City public school to a small, progressive, private all-girls school in Palo Alto, California. The change was intense and difficult. I was the only Black teacher in the school at the time, and I had jumped deep into a mostly white and wealthy school and community environment. Palo Alto is home to Nobel Prize winners, Silicon Valley CEOs, and venture capital firms; it exists in the shadow of Stanford University; and it is the birthplace of big tech companies such as Google and Facebook, to name a few. As a child of immigrants, I found entering this socioeconomic milieu to be a jarring experience with a steep learning curve. There were so many unwritten and unspoken rules and roles.
 
I stumbled through communications and interactions with people in my new learning community, including parents. My tone was seen as so direct that it once caused a colleague to cry. I internalized these early challenges, to the point where in conversations with my supervisors we questioned if I was the right fit for the school. I wondered, “Why wasn’t I getting this right?” This was a place where girls climbed trees and spent hours on the zipline as teachers enjoyed their lunch shoeless in the grass. In such an idyllic place, why did I feel so out of place?
 
As I weathered the doubts about my belonging, my department chair at the time, Dan Glass, a self-identified white, Jewish, cisgender man—and now a lifelong friend—quickly recognized and named the complex layer that my race added to my experience. In particular, he named the ways stereotypes about Black women shaped my interactions with others, and in retrospect, I realized that I was experiencing imposter syndrome. Years later, I asked him how he’d sorted that out. He explained how conversations about race, activism, and justice began at his kitchen table and that the idea of being an antiracist was a family value—his father had written a chapter in a 2008 book called Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School. His commitment to learning about and unpacking institutional racism taught him that allyship was built on ongoing action rather than feel-good rhetoric. In our work together, he was my advocate with parents and colleagues, offered me regular and honest feedback, and provided space for me to vent and to take action.
 
I stayed at that school for more than a decade and experienced tremendous personal and professional growth throughout my career there. Today, my colleagues from that school are my core network for information-sharing and curriculum development. I reflect on this experience because it speaks to the culture of the school and its leadership—and the culture was ultimately why I stayed. It was feedback-rich, reflective, empathetic, and innovative.
 
But my biggest takeaway is that while school leaders may set the tone for culture, my colleagues and I, working in concert with school leaders, were responsible for building the culture. It is the job of school leaders to create resources, name personnel, offer support, and create time to engage in culture work. And it is the work of each person in an institution to collectively and regularly define and reflect on the core values, actions, and mindsets that capture what it means to have a positive working culture.
 
For schools to develop this kind of culture—one that is collaborative, nimble, reflective, and compassionate—there are several practices to consider.

Conduct an Audit 

If administrators want to change and shape culture, they must begin by understanding the differences, similarities, and relationship between culture and climate, explains Steve Gruenert, assistant professor in educational administration at Indiana State University, in Principal magazine (March/April 2008). Climate refers to the shared practices and norms in a school community including teaching practices; hiring and retention; diversity; meeting norms; and the relationships among faculty, staff, administrators, parents, and students. School culture is the way administrators, faculty, and staff collaborate and the set of values, mindsets, beliefs, and assumptions they share. “Climate is the main leverage point for any culture, which means that if school leaders want to shape a new culture, they should start with an assessment of the climate,” Gruenert writes. “If the culture is ineffective, there are probably climate issues that were missed before they became rooted in the culture.”
 
To get a grasp on the culture and climate, school leaders might want to gather information from all faculty and staff members so that it is inclusive of all perspectives. Climate and culture audits, in the form of a survey every three years, can help schools:
  • explore whether the school prioritizes diversity and inclusivity so that all members of the faculty and staff feel a sense of belonging;
  • examine and assess systems and processes (professional learning, parent and student support, decision-making, and time and resource availability and allocation that are driving productivity or limiting it);
  • provide insights into school leadership styles and communication—what’s working and what can be improved; and/or
  • recalibrate and name mindsets and understandings so that everyone can be on the same page.
Before conducting this kind of audit, school leaders need to consider cost, time, and methodology. Audits can be led by a third-party firm or a consultant, which would offer objective insights and have clear protocols for gathering, synthesizing, and sharing information. This approach can be costly and may require weeks or months to complete. An internal audit—led by a committee of faculty, staff, or school leaders—may be more cost-effective, but it will add more to the workload of these community members.
 
At the completion of an audit, school leaders must share and process data with their peers, including the assistant head of school, chief financial officer, and human resources director. They must also examine the results as a whole community over the course of a few meetings. By examining the audit as a community, school leaders are signaling that they are committed to a shared understanding of the climate and culture. They understand that creating systems and practices that work for everyone requires reflection and growth.
 
Improving culture doesn’t just mean adding more perks, wellness subsidies, community socials, and incentives—especially when it’s clear that what faculty and staff really desire is true reflection and change. Schools that do not act on the feedback from faculty and staff breed apathy, pessimism, and distrust, which have immediate and lasting impacts on their culture.

Address Race Directly

Independent schools are mostly white spaces. The 2019 NAIS State of Diversity Report found that just 8% of heads of school are people of color, and only 16% of all administrators are educators of color. And as we have seen in the past few years, faculty members of color are exiting schools at an all-time high. Commonly cited factors include regular microaggressions, lack of advancement, discrimination, unpaid diversity and equity work, and an all-around sense of not belonging. In “Exit Signs,” an article by James Greenwood in the Winter 2021 issue of Independent School, the most cited reason for departure for educators of color was the overall school climate and culture.
 
In the best school cultures, there is a shared acknowledgment of frequent obstacles to career success (e.g., a lack of mentors, administrative support, mental wellness supports, leadership opportunities, belonging, and flexibility) and a commitment to addressing them. And while it might seem like having a person of color as a school leader would help address obstacles that Black administrators and educators face, that’s not necessarily the case. It becomes even more complex for Black educators when their school leader or supervisor is a person of color.

There are two complex layers that factor into their experience. The first mirrors the findings in a 2019 study by Coqual, “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration,” which found that nearly two-thirds of Black professionals feel they have to work harder than colleagues to advance in their careers. The second is captured in “Explaining Bias Against Black Leaders: Integrating Theory on Information Processing and Goal-Based Stereotyping,” a 2011 article in the Academy of Management Journal by Andrew Carton and Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, that examines how Black leaders are seen as less prepared and capable of leading.
 
Black teachers understand this unfairness and with this knowledge have to filter negative sentiment about a Black leader’s role. That quick hallway chat with a white colleague who is complaining about a supervisor who is a person of color, although natural and normal workplace banter, in a mostly white space could potentially unearth a layer of stressful emotions and they wrestle with the thought, “Is this because they are Black?” This sort of emotional labor coupled with a fractured culture can lead to faster fatigue and a lack of inclusiveness for Black teachers.
 
White colleagues must understand and be mindful of this layer and be willing to openly acknowledge it. This is what Dan Glass did for me years ago. His acknowledgment and support made all the difference. To more fully support employees of color, schools must have a strong and stable culture of reflection and growth. School leaders should create separate space to talk with faculty of color about whether they feel included by their colleagues and are treated fairly within the institution. They should also create space for white colleagues to learn to talk about race not only with students but with their fellow colleagues of color.

Define Philosophy

Independent schools often have what I call “social philosophies” that are deeply connected to the culture and climate that sit outside of the explicitly stated philosophies such as the mission statements, student learning goals, and framework of academics. These social philosophies often provide each person in the institution with anthropological information about how decisions are made, how they should teach, and how they should interact with each other.
 
One social philosophy is often codified in catch-all phrases such as: “That’s just the [insert school name] way!” or adding a -y to the school’s initials “this is so [insert-school initials]-y” or a series of words like “challenge, character, and curiosity.”
 
I encourage schools to unpack these catch-all phrases by examining collective behaviors, norms, mindsets, and values as a whole community. Then define each one in writing individually, share those definitions collectively, and combine ideas to reach consensus on a shared description or definition, including a bulleted list of values and norms. It should be clear, accessible for all, and definable; without a shared written document, it is ambiguous and leaves room for misunderstanding. Revise these norms each year as the school evolves and new community members learn the social philosophy.
 
Another common phrase in schools’ social philosophy: “We are like a family.” As a longtime educator, I know firsthand that schools are loving and kind spaces; I felt so cared for when I received birthday flowers and my colleagues threw me a baby shower. Because our schools are so warm, our interactions with each other skew toward the casual. And while there’s nothing wrong with this, research in a December 2020 Harvard Business Review article “When Work Feels Like Family, Employees Keep Quiet About Wrongdoing,” shows it is harder to hold each other accountable when we live out the “we are family” philosophy at work.
 
In school, for example, conversations with supervisors about important topics like lack of administrative support or work conditions often go undocumented and result in frustration when there’s no change. This is not due to willful neglect but rather to the fast-paced nature and the congenial culture of schools. Sending brief follow-up emails after the hallway chats or shared, editable documents to capture what was discussed in 1:1 or scheduled meetings can go a long way in avoiding this. Sending such updates might feel too “corporate,” but these communications are a way to foster a culture of progress, transparency, and trust.

Welcome Authentic Feedback

“Don’t tell Bob I said this, but he isn’t showing up to team planning meetings.” This is but one example of the kind of informal evaluative feedback about work quality, needs, and output that is regularly shared in school communities. On the one hand, this kind of information-sharing helps people bond because they feel comfortable entering into a kind of secret, and it helps them blow off steam. In the long run, however, it doesn’t help develop a culture that is reflective, growth-forward, and adaptable. If the information isn’t getting to Bob, growth can’t happen.
 
The most adaptable work environments are the ones that focus on nurturing a culture of open and ongoing dialogue. According to Deborah Grayson Riegel, an organizational expert, institutions should nurture a feedback-rich culture. “The more you normalize feedback—both positive and negative, and both giving and receiving—the less likely people will be to look for alternative means to express their frustrations and concerns,” she explains.
 
School leaders should encourage colleagues to speak directly with other colleagues and maintain that as a core value of building an adaptable culture. This might require professional development or training to help them learn how to talk openly with each other, or the school may need to develop a shared understanding about how to talk and share evaluative feedback with each other. If a colleague is hesitant, ask them to write up anonymous feedback to share—and be clear that this evaluative feedback will need to be shared with the subject. Ensure faculty and staff understand scenarios and guidelines.
 
It’s also critical to keep a record of evaluative feedback for each person in the organization and to be clear with the community about why this kind of record-keeping is happening. Researchers Shelley J. Correll and Caroline Simard from the Stanford University VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab analyzed written performance reviews for men and women and concluded that women were more likely to receive vague feedback. In an April 2016 Harvard Business Review article summarizing their work, they explained, “our research shows that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.”
 
Performance reviews with no tangible evidence hurt women and people of color the most because people rely on their own interpretations and working memory, which allows bias to creep in. School leaders must understand these complex layers and be more intentional about delivering a fair process for each person.
 
The second step is to create and/or revise the rubric for evaluations to have clear and relevant criteria. Review the rubric criteria as a whole community and make sure they capture clearly for each department and person what it means to be effective in their role. Update the rubric each year and make sure that data is collected over the year so that you have evidence-based feedback related to each of the criteria outlined in the performance rubric. And lastly, when offering feedback, eliminate words that can be subjective and riddled with cultural and social connotations (nice, pleasant, sweet, hardworking, polite).

Adaptation and Agility

When I reflect on school culture and my early experience, I see that I was successful in part because I was a “culture adapter”—described in “The New Analytics of Culture,” a January/February 2020 Harvard Business Review article, as someone who’s better able to maintain fit when cultural norms change or evolve. The article, which takes a detailed look at several research studies, explores how cultural adaptability, rather than “fit,” is more important for success. “Employees who could quickly adapt to cultural norms as they changed over time were more successful than employees who exhibited high cultural fit when first hired.”
 
It might have seemed at first that I didn’t “fit,” but that small and mighty school in Palo Alto set me up to find success as an educator. I will forever understand the benefits of empathy, collaboration, and reflection because of the culture and my experience there.
 
Not all situations are the same, of course. Some school cultures aren’t a fit, or sometimes a school is poorly managed or simply so toxic that you must leave. And the past two years—which have focused greater attention on the experiences of faculty and staff—have made that painfully clear.
 
But schools are ever-evolving environments, comprised of dedicated and committed humans who are passionate about their work. And even the best schools have room to grow when it comes to cultivating culture. Being culturally agile takes collaboration, compassion, deep introspection, flexibility, transparency, forgiveness, and most of all trust—all of which are needed to build a healthy culture. A positive environment is one that listens, reflects, acts, reflects again, and acts again.
Author
Amoy Walker

Amoy Walker is an academic and program strategy consultant and an independent school parent based in Atlanta, Georgia.