Cultivating a Culture of Growth

When I was a boy, one day my dad walked me to the back pasture of our farm.

Image source:
Image source:

At the end of long rows of corn, he had set aside an area that he had tilled and planted with potato cuttings. The plants had grown and died. In this patch, I couldn’t see any sign of life.

“Get down on your hands and knees,” he said, as he squatted on all fours. So I followed suit.

“Now start digging down below the top layer of soil until you feel something,” he told me as he began moving dirt.

Soon I felt the warm topsoil give way to the cool, rich dirt below. And before long I was digging up dozens of new, red potatoes. We made piles of them, loaded them up and carried them home to clean.

How Is Your School’s Soil?

Recently, I had a couple of school leaders ask me the following questions:

1. How do you keep teachers motivated during budget shortfalls?
2. What are the most effective ways to promote positive collaboration with administrators and educators?

Both questions reminded me of how important the “soil” of school culture is for staying motivated and working together. Just like a gardener or farmer cultivates a field so it produces a bountiful crop, we can only see healthy results in our schools when we also cultivate a collaborative school culture.

So what are some ways to cultivate a healthy school culture?

Three Ways for Growing Healthy Culture

1. Identify your most important values, and center all your goals on those priorities.
What is the greatest motivation behind the initiatives, programs, and schedules in your school? When your mindset is built on creating a learning environment where all students can be successful, your decisions, hiring choices, curriculum, master schedule, and time management follow suit.

I recently heard a presentation from Tim Brown, co-author of Creating and Protecting a Shared Foundation. As a career principal in secondary and elementary schools, Brown explained that school members must not only identify their driving motivation, but also they must “say it, model it, organize it, protect it, and reward it.”

If you begin with your motivations grounded in the right values, you have the beginnings of a healthy environment that influence every aspect of school.

2. Surround yourself with people who share those values and goals in common.
When times get hard, people have a tendency to either give up or work harder. But tough times should remind us even more how much we need one another to work smarter. Partner with others who share a commitment to help students succeed. When you do, you have resources in one another that you can never experience alone.

For instance, every time we make a new hire in our building, we ask ourselves: Would this person be someone I would want teaching my child? Does this person share the values we hold dear?

Sharing values doesn’t mean everyone is the same. Your strengths and weaknesses will vary from person to person. But even people with a diversity of backgrounds and skills can do amazing work when they’re united around a common purpose.

3. Schedule time for collaboration.
Collaboration does not happen by accident. At our school, we have embedded it in our schedule.

First, our teachers who share common curriculum standards meet regularly to team around those goals. For instance, we design our master schedule so that all Language Arts teachers share a common plan, all Math teachers share a common plan, and Biology and U.S. History teachers share common plans.

Also, we rotate weekly to schedule times for leadership collaboration on Thursdays. Week one, we meet with district leadership. Week two, we meet with department chairs and other teacher leaders. Week three, we meet with our entire faculty. Week four is time scheduled with our student leadership group.

When times are tough, the natural tendency is to either isolate, begin complaining, or simply give up. But staying connected with one another, or collaborating to find positive solutions, keeps you accountable to the goals and priorities you set for your students and your school.


I’ll never forget digging potatoes with my dad. Later when we had steamed, buttered, and salted them, I’m convinced that they tasted even better because I had gotten my hands dirty harvesting them from the well-cultivated soil.

School cultures can either be places of beautiful cultivation or toxic environments. And much depends on the attitudes, commitment, and teamwork we encourage in one another.

In the end, identifying your core values, surrounding yourself with like-minded team members, and making time for collaboration keeps the soil of your school cultivated so that everyone has the best environment for staying motivated and serving up great learning.

Now It’s Your Turn

What are some other suggestions you would add to the questions of keeping your team motivated? What are ways you’ve learned to promote positive collaboration?

Posted originally at Copyright 2016, Connect through Twitter with handle @williamdp or at Check out Will’s new PMPodcast!


  1. Deborah D Hall said:

    Time and energy is finite. There continues to only be 24 hours in a day. Teachers and everyone in the educational arena should be focusing on can do projects, eliminate poisonous school environments, welcome talents in students and staff, and to focus on the Growth Potential of educating our next few generations of youth. They will be given heavy responsibilities in all of mankind’s future. SHOULDN’T EVERYONE BE HELPING THE STUDENTS LEARN HOW TO LEARN? TO DEVELOP SKILLS OUR FRAGILE WORLDS AND DIVERSE COMMUNITIES ON THIS PLANET WILL NEED?

    June 22, 2016
  2. Julie Martin-Beaulieu said:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this topic as I struggle with it regularly in my role of principal. I think that a piece missing from your post – although it is indirectly stated through collaboration – is the importance of relationships. In the midst of the multitude of challenges we face as educators, the belief that we cannot do this work alone is rampant. But what does it mean to do it together? It doesn’t just mean planning curriculum together, it means truly getting to know and valuing each other. This may seem trite, but something I try to do regularly is carve out time in my morning, before heading to school, to write thank you notes to staff members. This does a few different things. It reminds me of the great people and great work going on around me. The perspective of gratitude is very powerful. And the act of giving thanks cultivates relationships which, in my mind, is so important to do when cultivating a culture of growth.

    June 27, 2016
  3. Julie,
    That isn’t trite at all. It is essential. You nailed it. Without relationships, collaboration is impossible. Thanks for bringing that point home with you comments!

    June 27, 2016
  4. AY said:

    You are so right to say that collaboration does not happen by accident. School administrators have to intentionally create regular opportunities for collaboration. My school carve out a common prep period once a week for divisional teachers to come together to discuss common goals in particular subject, conduct peer assessment on student works as well as doing planning for team teaching. This build a culture of collaboration and help the school to work towards goals set in the school improvement plan.

    June 27, 2016
  5. Luciano Lopez said:

    Building a relationship with staff is at the core of what principals need to do. Collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. As principal, I think its not only important to create time and space to foster relationships, but also to take the time to be a co-learner along side the teachers, to be a part of the collaboration, not simply monitoring it.

    July 14, 2016
  6. Great point, Luciano! If principals stop learning, how can we expect others to be learning? My superintendent models this so well for our school team. He’s right in the middle of our PD, learning and growing right along with us.

    July 14, 2016

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