Q & A: Transforming toxic school cultures
December 29, 2013 | By Jane Meredith Adams | 2 Comments
For Anthony Muhammad, a widely recognized expert on school culture, the success of California’s big push to improve public schools rests on the ability of administrators and teachers to put aside blame, learn to talk to each other and work together to support their belief that every student can be successful – which is his definition of a healthy school culture.
Muhammad grew up in Flint, Mich., where he said he learned first-hand how teachers can subtly encourage or discourage their students. A former teacher and middle school principal, he is the co-author of “The Will to Lead, the Skill to Teach: Transforming Schools at Every Level” and the author of “Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division.” He has presented his work on creating healthy school cultures to improve student achievement to many schools, districts and educational organizations, including Vallejo City Unified School District, Region 4 of the California Regional System of District and School Support, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Hanford, and the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Muhammad talked to EdSource by phone from Michigan about school reform, “toxic” school cultures and how administrators and teachers can have tough conversations. Excerpts of the interview are below.
EdSource: As you know, California is in the midst of a momentous change in how it funds education, with more money intended to go to schools that have a high concentration of kids with low incomes. At the same time, Common Core State Standards are being introduced. Many people are excited about new possibilities, but some might say, “Oh, yet another effort to reform.” What would you say is needed to make these new efforts effective?
Anthony Muhammad: My message to legislators would be that reform takes time, it’s multifaceted and one of the biggest parts they’ve missed is that systems and leaders have to know how to develop people.
Without leadership that has an understanding of emotional intelligence, and how to motivate and cultivate people, we’re going to get results like we’ve gotten over the last 15 to 20 years – a huge investment in the nonhuman parts of the organization, with little to no results.
EdSource: How do you suggest school leaders motivate teachers, staff and each other?
Muhammad: One of the schools I’ve work with is Martin Luther King Elementary School in the Central Valley, in Hanford, which, when we started with them about four to five years ago, was a Program Improvement school. And just last year, they became an 800 API (Academic Performance Index test score) school. Debra Colvard, the principal, was convinced that they had all the right technical mechanisms, such as instructional tools, in place, and that the issue was trying to get the people to actually use them.
EdSource: How did you begin?
Muhammad: It started with, from the leadership perspective, involving the teachers and the community in developing what we call ‘collective purpose': What are we trying to accomplish?
The second major piece was to improve communication between the classrooms and leadership. What I’ve found is that when people get frustrated in an improvement process, they tend to gravitate to other people who share those kinds of frustrations, and cliques, subcultures and schisms start to develop in the organization.
It’s not that some of those issues aren’t legitimate. So when I work with a school long-term, we lay all that stuff on the table, and develop ways for teachers and administrators to have consistent dialog around tough issues to find resolutions rather than relief.
EdSource: But how do you start a dialogue with, say, a teacher who’s been a third-grade teacher for 20 years and doesn’t feel understood or appreciated?
Muhammad: Well, what can’t be missed is that the first step is to establish what the school’s collective purpose is. And one of the issues that we face as a profession is that, for years, we’ve been in an individualized modality.
When I was a teacher, I could go to my classroom, shut my door, and basically isolate myself from the rest of the staff. Well, California is measuring schools as organizations, not as Mrs. Johnson versus Mrs. Jones. So that’s why developing the collective purpose, and getting people focused on a common set of objectives, is very important, because that frames the conversation about communication.
EdSource: Where do you go from there?
Muhammad: There are two parts to the building-trust-through-communication piece. Number one, the school leader is best-positioned to extend an olive branch, because they possess ‘position power.’ They have the power to evaluate. They have the power to assign teachers.
There can be an intimidation factor that the leader has to recognize; but if the leader is extending the olive branch, and is articulating that this is a safe process, teachers are more likely to participate.
EdSource: And what do you ask of teachers?
Muhammad: What I’ve got to help the teachers to understand is that if you feel that you’re a victim of poor leadership, and if the leader is extending an olive branch, you have an obligation as a professional to bring your issues to the table. You also have to open yourself up to the administrators communicating their issues with you. There are things that administrators have legitimate issues about with teachers, whether it’s not following the curriculum or whether it’s issues of professional behavior.
This has to be a reciprocal process, but the administrator is definitely in the best position to lead the process through exhibiting humility.
EdSource: Why is this kind of open communication important to school reform?
Muhammad: Because developing changes to the school, as an organization, takes a high level of collaboration. If Response to Intervention (a system for providing academic support to students), for example, is an initiative and we’re going to help students who are struggling, that’s going to take coordination between the principal, the central office, teachers, site coaches and counselors.
And if people are holding onto their past issues, we can’t develop the level of synergy necessary to develop and maintain those systems. So if a person has a personal pity party, and they find other people who share that pity party, they’re not spending their time doing the work necessary to help kids move forward.
EdSource: You have written that a “healthy” school culture, not a “toxic” culture, is critical to effective school reform. How does a healthy school culture operate?
Muhammad: When it comes to the difference between a ‘healthy’ or a ‘toxic’ culture, it really boils down to a set of habits. Habits take time to develop, and they take time to change. I like to call a toxic culture ‘descriptive and deflective.’ So whenever problems arise – whether it’s parent involvement, whether it’s students who don’t speak English, whether it’s financial challenges – when toxic cultures are confronted with a problem, they get very vivid in their description of the problem, and their habit is to find other people to associate blame for the problem.
So if a school has an issue with student attendance, in a toxic culture, people gravitate to other people who are flabbergasted about it, and they will complain about it. And this has been a part of our culture for a long time. Teachers’ lounges are notorious for that.
EdSource: For complaining?
Muhammad: Yes. Describe everything’s that wrong with the world, and then find other people to blame for it. It doesn’t make those people bad people. It makes them unproductive.
In a healthy culture, they say, ‘Okay. Well, why aren’t kids coming to school? Is the concentration higher in the third grade as opposed to the fifth grade?’ And they start to organize themselves to actually solve it.
So we’re talking about a shift of habits that makes an organization productive or unproductive. The state of California and other states have invested a lot of money on changing the systems, but they haven’t done a good job in trying to change the mindset or the habits. So a million-dollar school-improvement grant will go nowhere in a toxic culture. The environment just isn’t conducive to it.
EdSource: Students in the American public school system haven’t scored well on tests in comparison with students in other countries. What do you make of that?
Muhammad: We have some of the best instructional minds, some of the best curriculum minds, in the world: (education researcher) Bob Marzano, (Stanford University professor) Linda Darling-Hammond. The problem has been many schools just haven’t had the culture to take advantage of it.
So if we can solve this culture dilemma, I think the rest of the world needs to take notice that America is coming to take her top spot back.