Sep 11, 2016

Current issues in my professional context

When I first arrived at my current school a few years back I had the distinct worry that things were not as they should be. While the general ambience of the school was welcoming and warm, there was a distinct buzz with the children and most of the staff, there was also a distinct cold front. I was quickly told in no uncertain terms that things were done this way for a reason [the reason was never given] and that that’s the way we do it here. Stoll states the same thing, “Each school has a different reality or mindset of school life, often captured in the simple phrase “it’s the way we do things around here” (p.9, 1998). So trying to suggest new ways of running some programmes [such as maths] were met with very frosty responses. Thankfully the cold front was short lived and moved onto a different area of Auckland and the general culture and feel of the school warmed up considerably. School culture for me needs to be one where staff are valued for their ideas and input regardless of whether they are on the management team or not. Professional development should be shared and utilised and ideas welcomed. We as educators expect this to happen in our classrooms with our students so why not in the staffroom or meeting?

Stoll (1998) defines school culture along three dimensions, the relationship among its members; the organisational structure including the physical environment and management system; and the learning nature. Some internal and external factors that shape a school's culture include the school's history, the students' socio-economic background, external contexts such as national educational policies, and societal changes. 

Stoll and Fink identified the 10 cultural norms that influence school improvement. Our school definitely seems to have most of them pretty nailed. Although the first two maybe need some work. One of the things I love about some of the staff I work with is the collaboration we have. Frequently we spontaneously and voluntarily work together on different programmes and ideas, we share activities and we join forces on activities too – it certainly improves the general feel of positivity and alleviates the stresses of the job. I have found the yearly challenges laid down to us quite taxing sometimes but I love that there is always someone there to help. I love that staff offer support and guidance in their areas of expertise frequently, willingly and often without prompting. 


There is an openness and mutual respect amongst staff and this makes the school environment a pleasant place to work in. The areas we need to work on as a school I feel are definitely the first two. I’m not sure that the shared goals are often decided on together as much as laid down in a ‘you shalt’ manner, this makes for a divisive staff attitude and therefor success is often not strived towards with the right attitude – it is rather dragged along kicking and screaming in some cases; depending on the goal structure and discussions that led to it.

I do sometimes feel that the socioeconomic area of our school promotes a culture of judgment and criticism; however, I have also experienced this in other areas in schools also – it’s not just this school. I think a great deal of this attitude comes from the constant media bashing of schools. ‘Schools failing in core subjects’, ‘Parata fires shot at teachers’, ‘Schools under pressure’ etc etc. It is a struggle to rise above the onslaught of negativity but as educators we do need to hold a growth mindset on a daily basis. As Silns, Mulford, Waters et al (2003) state “If we want to nurture a growth mindset, we need classroom, school, and community cultures that reflect the language and expectations that come with it.” (p.2). Our school and culture must be positive even in a sea of negativity otherwise we will all drown. Promoting and using mindfulness on a daily basis has become a useful tool for myself as well as my students. It helps to take stock of the pressures of the world around us it actually helps to refocus the brain on the things that matter. It’s a new strategy I have implemented lately and will continue to implement as the year continues. As Mrnjaus & Kmeta (2014) suggest “maintenance of concentration, social problems resolution skills, how we manage frustration, negative and positive feelings (this is connected with frontal lobe) is extremely important for school, social and personal results”. (p.1046)


Deal, T.E., & Kennedy, A. (1983). Culture and school performance, Educational Leadership, 40 (5), pp.140–141.

Mrnjaus, K., & Krneta, M. (2014). Mindfulness, Concentration and Student Achievement – Challenges and Solutions. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 1044–1049.

Silins, H., Mulford, B., Waters, T., Marzano, D. R. J., McNulty, B., & Blackwell, L. (2003). Growth Mindset in Context Content and Culture Matter Too. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 15(3–4), 43–466.

Stoll, L., & Fink, D. (1996). Changing our schools: Linking school effectiveness and school improvement. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Stoll, L. (1998). School Culture. School Culture, (9), 9–14. Retrieved from


  1. School culture often takes a hit when staff changes occur. Without an open mind, existing staff can feel challenged about the way they run their programmes. It reminds me of the quote by Derek Sivers that “Fish don’t know they’re in water.” Unless they get some insight into how things are done in other places they have no idea about other possibilities. They are also not aware of the things they take for granted or accept as the norm. I guess you made the existing fish aware of the water Claire!
    By understanding Stoll and Fink’s 10 cultural norms you have a great way to help smooth the way for change.

    1. That's so true Luke! Culture can take a hit in a positive or negative way with a changeover in staff. I always think it's refreshing to get other perspectives on activities we currently do at school and see 'what else is possible'. I often think change is fleeting unless the culture of the school is positive and nurturing and open to new ideas. Thanks for the comments

    2. "Fish don't know they're in water" - this really intrigued me (so much so that I had to read the article from which it came). This is so very true of school culture, whether that culture be positive or destructive, the 'agenda' spoken or unspoken. Our school has a very strong, positive culture, and despite the fact we have numerous visiting groups a week trying to learn from 'why and how we do what we do', we are so deep within our own 'water', it can be easy to forget there are other oceans and seas as well. We have a sister school in Australia, who we do a teaching 'exchange' with each year - a group of teachers from our school host a group of teachers from Australia, and then the reverse happens a month or so later. Our school 'waters' are aligned so closely on many levels, but teachers always seem to comment two things on return – “we don’t know how good we’ve got it . . . “ AND “they have this really interesting/cool/unique was of doing/saying/learning _________ . . ." They say distance lends perspective, and no matter how good you’ve got it, there is always something new to be learned when we are open to collaboration and reflection.

  2. I found your blog very open and honest. I can specifically relate to the cold front. However in my case, I was brought in to do a job and focussed only on the learners. I failed to react to the climate. I have since learned from my mistakes and am now able to devote my attention fully to the job in hand, namely the learners who inspired our choice of vocation.

    1. Hey thanks for that Vicky - I did wonder if it was too open and honest! It's nice to know it happens in other places too. I struggled on with the climate until the weather changed! Then real focus and development for the learners could happen - a warm front came in with a much more open mind to change and improvements.

  3. Comment via Google+

    Rhea Anglesey

    Thank you for the open and honest reflections about the climate change needed at your workplace Claire. I can totally agree with you on the idea that every school , in fact , every institution for that matter has a 'spoken' or 'unspoken' agenda of 'how things are done'. Unfortunately, most of the time, this hinders positive change and growth amongst the communities of practice that exist in that institution ( I can see a clear link between Week 25 and 26 topics here ).
    Brings to mind Fullan's observation that 'turning information into knowledge is a social process and for that you need good relationships' Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change Pg6
    Resistance to change is probably the most pervasive disease ( if I may call it so) in our school systems. Often born out of sheer fear of losing control and power.

    1. Absolutely true that all schools have a culture of 'the way we do things around here', be that uplifting, destructive, or somewhere inbetween. To continue on the Fullan quote-train, he also comments that "the single most important factor common to successful change is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, school get better . . ."(pg 17). Claire, I think your experience is validation of this. When I first began teaching at my current school, I was immediately struck by how 'right' everything felt. It took me a while to put my finger on exactly why the culture felt like that, and I now come to realise it all comes back to a very obvious spoken agenda, very clearly articulated, and related to a common goal. We know what we are doing, why we are doing it, where we are heading, and how we are going to get there. We challenge each other and support each other, and as corny as it sounds, we are "all in this together" - we are working towards a shared vision. "WE GO, NOT EGO". Solid relationships, collaboration and trust are a huge part of this 'feeling', of our school culture.

    2. Rach - a shared vision and focus are so important for culture in any workplace not just school. I love your 'we go not ego' line - almost a motto!!! Brilliant
      relationships are so important just to allow us a joy of coming to work too