My wife is an elementary school principal. She has been doing this for years and has, in my estimation, done a remarkable job at taking a challenging environment and making it into a culture where learning, encouragement and support can take place. She guides a school that provides 100% free breakfast and lunch for all of its kids. In her hallways poverty is the rule – not the exception. And along with poverty comes a myriad of other challenges that spring from young lives touched by trauma – of which poverty is only one. All of these stories are walking into her school every morning – some with manageable challenges — others with more unmanageable ones. In tow with each child are family systems that are diverse and sometimes untenable. And to her and her team is given the challenge – teach our kids.
With school starting I asked about her protocol for getting the year started right. She told me that part of the formula for a great school year is the work of creating the vision and boundaries that will inform the school culture for the upcoming year. When I asked her how this was done she said that every staff member in her school is strongly encouraged to give the first two weeks of school to teaching the culture.
Before any significant work is done with reading, writing and arithmetic – before any projects are assigned – before any tests are given – before any significant academia is undertaken – culture is taught.
Culture is the platform upon which all other meaningful things are accomplished. I heard one writer say that culture is like unto the computer operations language of a computer. Once that language is in place an unlimited amount of apps and programs can be written on top of it. But without it – confusion reigns. Why? Because the culture defines the language and boundaries of how life is to be lived.
When I probed further about the culture work at school my wife went further to say that the day after every vacation or extended holiday culture retraining is always necessary. When kids are out of the routine – upon returning there has to be a reinforcement of the culture fundamentals.
When I first heard this I thought – wow, that feels like a long time to not be teaching the things that will help them on the “test”. But she assured me – if you don’t take the time to build and keep reinforcing the culture you will pay the price the entire year. Simply put, either the leader makes clear how we will do our work together or everyone else will be jockeying to make it their way. This includes every staff member, every student and every parent. Without a clear culture the system suffers.
Imagine the time lost in an environment where the culture is not clear. It’s a never ending drain of lost time and effort. In environments like this the entire system has at least two jobs. Not only are they trying to teach the curriculum (get the obvious job done) but they are trying to figure out how to create the environment to do it in when everyone has their own opinion about not only what learning should look like – but whether they even want to be a part of any constructive learning.
Early in my life I believed that culture should be assumed. Teachers should just know how to do that. Children should just know that they are there to learn. Parents should just be supportive of the work of learning.
I laugh when I think of that now.
If I’ve learned anything in my years of navigating this life it’s that culture should never – never be assumed. When the challenges get tough – really tough — how we do it is as important as what we are doing. Taking the time to define and clarify culture is not the work nobody has time for – it is the non-negotiable for actually being able to be productive.
Culture matters – everywhere.