10 Easy Ways to Create an Awesome School District Culture

In the past, I have written about some simple ideas that can help improve the culture in both the classroom and school setting.  In this post, I want to focus on some quick things that can be done at the central office level that will create a culture where people feel valued and will also push themselves to become better at what they do.  These suggestions are from a mix of things that I have done in the past as well as things that I have seen done by great leaders at the district office level.

1. Get into classrooms and schools as much as possible.

If you are going to make decisions that impact classrooms, you need to be in those classrooms as much as possible.

This can be as simple taking your laptop or device to a classroom and answering emails, or filling out documents that might be needed later. These things do not always have to be done in a physical office, and even though you might not be as efficient, this process can be much more valuable.

One thing to note is that I am not suggesting you go into the classrooms to observe teachers, but more importantly, to see the environment they work in so that you do as much as possible to remove as many barriers as possible.

2. Know and find the names of the people you serve.

No matter your position, never assume someone knows your name. Introduce yourself, ask names, and get to know them in some way.  I have worked in districts for many years that the superintendent had no clue who I was, while in another school district, I met and connected with the entire central office team on the first day.  I would see them often, and they would always address me by my first name, and I will tell you, it made me feel not only much more valued, but comfortable to share thoughts and ideas with them. It is much harder to learn from the people you serve if they are not comfortable talking to you in the first place.

3. Learn with your community.

Many people at the central office level are the ones delivering professional learning opportunities, which often means they are pushing people into their own learning and development.  But what does it say when you partake in professional learning opportunities WITH the people you serve as an active participant?

This is not limited to central office staff.  I have seen many times where politicians, who are often the most known voice in the community representing education, come to a session or conference, deliver their thoughts, and then leave the second they are done and are off to the next engagement.  What does this say to the group that you are “leading?”

Do not expect the people you serve to push themselves and take risks in their learning and development unless you are willing to model that for them as well.

4. Teach.

My friend Tony Sinanis, would often go into classrooms as a superintendent and read books to students or teach them concepts.  This says something really powerful to the people you serve, while also giving you an opportunity to connect directly with students.

A simple suggestion I have for learning facilitators at the central office level is not always to be the one working with teachers.  If you work with some that is doing great things in the classroom, find a way to cover their class and have them work directly with their colleagues.  This not only builds leadership and culture, but it also builds relationships and shows value to the people you serve.

This leads to the next suggestion.

5. Provide leadership opportunities.

Great leaders develop great leaders.  What are the opportunities in your district that you can provide that for your staff to expand their own learning and leadership abilities?  Many districts I have worked with have created opportunities for “Innovative Teaching and Learning Leads” where they work with a group of staff to provide them with leadership opportunities to work with staff.  This not only spreads knowledge and wisdom, but it also shows value to the people that are in your organization.

Do everything in your power to debunk the idea that “you can’t be a prophet in your own land.” Some of the best educators in the world are probably right in your own organization. Tap into them and give them opportunities to share their expertise.

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6. Respond to people on social media via school or district hashtags.

As many districts are promoting educators to share their learning online, as well as things happening in their classrooms, ensure that you let them know their efforts do not go unnoticed.  In my own experience, I always carved out time to respond to both student and staff blogs so that they knew I was learning along with them and I valued what they were sharing.

I remember one of my superintendents responding at about 11:30 PM on a Friday night to some excellent work that a teacher had done in their school. By 11:35 PM that same night, the teacher had responded right back.  She had talked to me and told me how excited she was that she received the acknowledgment for her efforts.

If you see something great, do not let an opportunity pass by without acknowledging it.

7. Use video to connect when you can’t physically be in classrooms.

If you think a picture is worth a thousand words, what do you think a video is worth?

An easy way to connect in large districts when you cannot physically be in schools or classrooms as much as you like is to share little video reflections to a hashtag of the great stuff you are seeing. Not only does this the acknowledge the great work of so many people making incredible things happen in your schools, but it also helps to spread ideas while creating visibility.

If you don’t think you have time for this, realize this is as simple as recording a video on your mobile device as you are walking to your car while leaving a school.  It doesn’t have to be a big production or professionally done (which sometimes actually freaks people out because they might be intimidated by the “perfect” video and not try themselves), but it can be something as simple as a 30-second reflection video.

8. Lose the entourage.

If you are coming from central office and you are always with a large group of people and do the five-minute visit into the classroom, you may be causing more issues in classrooms, while also being intimidating to staff. It is much easier to approach one person from your central office than it is five.  

I am not saying that you should never go to schools in groups, but I am suggesting that you should NOT only go to schools in groups.  Simple things like having lunch at schools, talking to staff and students can strengthen relationships and are great opportunities to learn how you can best serve the people that work closest with students.

9. Remove as many barriers as possible.

This is something that I have always reminded central office; your job is to remove as many barriers as possible, not create them to justify your work. I remember that within a two to four week period every year, each department had sent out “surveys” to staff to get feedback on their work.  Although the intent was in the right place, this became another thing for many teachers as it felt like more time was spent filling out forms for central office than there was for teaching and learning.

Long emails, myriads of forms to fill out, and hoops to jump, often cause more issues than solve.  The more barriers you can remove, the more time and energy can be harnessed toward doing great work for and with our students.

10. Show appreciation daily.

One of my former superintendents would make it a daily ritual to sit in her office and write letters (not emails) to staff and acknowledge something great they had done.  Daily.

I remember seeing one of these envelopes in my mailbox and having so much anxiety and then reading it and feeling so appreciated.

Understand, there is some selfishness in this as well. People will benefit from knowing they are appreciated, but starting off with a daily ritual of acknowledging the great work of people is also a great way to start a day positively.  The benefits are abundant.

With all of these ideas shared above (please feel free to share more in the comments), one thing I want to remind people is always to be approachable. I have worked for central office staff that I feared to even talk to, and I have worked with central office staff that did so much to show me that I was appreciated and valuable.  The latter ensured that I would want to excel.

Always remember…The higher you go up in any organization, the more people you serve, not the other way around.

With this mentality, you become the pathway for those you serve, not the obstacle.

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Source: George Couros