Culture change

How do we change the culture of our school?

Managing change is very much a cultural piece of work for a school leadership team to undertake. By cultural we mean 'the way things are done around here'. The internal culture of the school will often determine whether the school will embrace or resist change.

This page will provide you with tools to explore the culture of your school. It will encourage you to use the IB Learner Profile as a reflective tool to examine which attributes support change in your school.

The culture of your school

When trying to bring about change it is important that you have a sound awareness of how the larger culture, structures, and norms will react to your efforts.

Culture can be defined as 'how things get done around here'.

  • How would you describe the culture of your school?
  • How do you think others would describe it?
  • What defines school culture in general?
  • What artifacts, traditions, normative behaviors (and unwritten rules) define the culture in your school?
  • What experience has your staff had with change?
  • Will the anticipated change impact the culture of the school?
  • Does your school culture have a growth or fixed mindset?

Use the following activity to discover how some of your key stakeholders perceive the culture of your school.

Activity 1: What is the culture of your school?

The purpose of this activity is for you as school leaders to seek and engage with a variety of perspectives of your school.  The use of photographs allows a different method for the articulation of meaning, it can reach and include a wider range of stakeholders, is a form of visual narrative, which is evidenced and reveals the subjective interpretations of school experience. As key stakeholders you may choose governors, parents, students and staff.

  • Give a digital camera to individual members of your school community. It may be good to choose people whose voice is not normally heard in the school. Consider auxiliary staff, bus drivers, janitor etc.
  • Ask the individuals to take photographs of the school which sums up the culture of your school ‘as they see it and as they know it.’ Nothing is off limits. It can be as positive or negative as they wish. Inviting this group of people to take these photographs is a way for us to understand the school better ‘through their eyes’, so that we can find ways to improve.
  • From the photographs stakeholders choose 6 photographs. Allow the individual photographers to explain why they have chosen these particular photographs and what each image is intended to say in relation to the theme. Participants may wish to record these narratives, explanations and illustrations in note form. Questions they could ask are: What do you see here? What does it tell you about the school? What do you think lies behind the photos? How do the photographs reflect a response to the theme?
  • As a leadership team consider the following questions: What do the photos say about your school, its culture and especially about how it manages change? What did you learn from the photos and from this ‘through your eyes’ activity? What are you going to change as a result? 

Activity 2: Reflecting

The IB Learner Profile represents the IB Mission Statement in action and should characterize the attributes of members of the school community. It is therefore helpful to reflect on how elements of the Learner Profile align with your school culture and how these attributes could prove helpful in change management.

  • Which  IB Learner Profile attributes are strengths within the culture of your school?
  • Which IB Learner Profile attributes need to be developed further?
  • How could you use the Learner Profile framework as a tool to develop a culture which embraces change?

Reflection - Listening to others

Market Research

The Art of International Headship (RSAcademics 2016) is a piece of market research based on the views of over a 100 leaders of international schools in Asia and the Gulf region. It is an attempt to understand the particular challenges faced by those leading an international school and the leadership qualities needed for success.

Leading an international school requires dealing with much more change than a typical domestic school. This includes changes in the market, the school community (e.g. turnover of staff and students) and, in some locations, changes to local regulations – e.g. relating to inspection or curriculum.  This is in addition to more planned changes such as ambitious growth within a school.

A key aspect of successful international headship is gauging when and how to lead change. In particular this includes recognizing the complexity and context of the school and judging when to press the accelerator and when to pause to allow consolidation; when to consult and when to direct.

 “Most school Heads have good ideas. Not all have the capacity to detail the steps to be undertaken to bring about change. A great Head I worked with did this by knowing who to pick to manage change and continued to monitor how that change was being implemented. He periodically stepped in to encourage and applaud, predicted and smoothened out pitfalls. He communicated to the community how far we had come, what the next steps were. All this built a sense of community and resilience - essential in schools where change and development are part of the oxygen of what makes schools stand out.”

“The Head should be knowledgeable and sensitive about the school's context and able to negotiate a shared united vision from the diversity found in the school to manage a pace of change that is challenging and respectful of the past.”

“Knowing that even when the solution seems (or perhaps really IS) obvious, schools are intensely complex and highly political organisms and so actually realising that solution will take longer than it reasonably should. Decisions that can be taken, enacted and have results in business can simply take SO much longer in schools and on one level this is unacceptable (if student learning is compromised while we go through a 'process' to make the needed change). On the other hand, knowing that the change cannot be made WITHOUT the process means that sometimes the patience to go slow to go fast later can be really hard.

The Art of International Headship, RSAcademics,

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