Leadership Moves…Positive Transformational Culture
When a kid walks through this door, the principal feels like that’s her child. Every single one of us feels that way ….That’s the caring that is in this building. Some of these kids don’t get any of this love at home. Homework will go, and it may not come back. And we have people here who will say, “Sit over here and let’s do this work” or “Go over there to Ms. So-and-so who is going to ‘adopt’ you, and she is going to help you with this work”. That’s how we care here.
Teacher, R.N. Harris Elementary, Durham, NC
Our most consistent finding about high-performing urban schools is that they established a positive transformational culture that made the school a place where all students (regardless of race/ethnicity, family income, language background, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, or other demographic groups) were eager to come to school, learn, and grow. As well, the school became a place where adults (teachers, support staff, volunteers, and administrators) were eager to come to work, learn, and grow as members of a team that made an increasingly powerful difference in the lives of students. A school’s culture is comprised of the beliefs and values of its members (Schein, 1992) and is reflected in norms and traditions formed over time (Deal & Peterson, 2009). School culture guides behavior according to underlying assumptions that are shared by teachers, reflected in administrators, students, parents, support personnel, and others (Schein, 1992)
We define the culture as positive because these high-performing urban schools displayed overwhelmingly positive learning climates for all these stakeholders. Children and adults felt respected, valued, and appreciated. Adults took painstaking efforts to ensure that everyone felt safe and comfortable (physically and emotionally).
Students perceived that the adults at school knew them and cared about them individually. School employees perceived that administrators wanted them to be professionally successful. There was little evidence of personal tension among students, among adults, or between students and adults. Rare incidents of student misbehavior were handled in a low-key manner that helped sustain the positive climate. In elementary, middle, and high schools, we observed comfortable classroom atmospheres with minimal tension between teachers and students and minimal tension among students. “There isn’t much drama here,” one student from Dayton Business and Technology High School explained. She emphasized, “People get along and help each other.”
Students wanted to come to school and learn not only because adults created a pleasant, safe environment, but also because adults convinced students that the entire school community was committed to their success. In many of the awarded schools, students told interviewers, “The teachers here care about us. They want us to succeed.” At Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, a student explained, “They [teachers] know we can do college-level work and they won’t rest and they won’t let us rest until we do it.” Ladson-Billings (2002) emphasized that caring educators demanded that students work hard to succeed. Irvine and Fraser (1998) described educators who exhibited this style of caring as “warm demanders.” Bondy and Ross (2008) reported that warm demanders knew their students as individuals, demonstrated unconditional positive regard, and then insisted that students perform to high standards. Warm demanders dominated the cultures of these high-performing urban schools.
“We rally around each other. We try to help each other so that we can all be strong teachers. We’re OK as individuals, but as a team, we’re pretty amazing.”
The culture was transformational because students, teachers, support personnel, and administrators were always focused on improving. Even when the school had achieved at levels far beyond typical expectations for urban schools, teachers were asking, “How can I improve that lesson so that more students will understand the central concepts?” Teachers were willing to modify their instructional strategies, homework assignments, lesson plans, and daily routines in order to generate better learning results for students. Counselors were constantly analyzing data and asking how they might intervene in ways that better helped students adjust to difficult life situations. Administrators were constantly considering how they might help teachers effectively reach more students. Administrators were willing to modify master schedules, professional development calendars, program budgets, discipline policies, job descriptions, and almost anything else they controlled or influenced if it was likely to result in greater successes for all students.
In these schools, the sense of hope promoted an even greater collective commitment to transformation. Hope influenced the extent to which students, parents, teachers, and other school personnel sought to improve their efforts. Educators nurtured a sense of hope by helping students and parents envision a better future. Conversations about college and careers occurred frequently at these schools. Students learned to see themselves as changing the trajectory of their lives and changing the future of their communities. As well, school personnel recognized that working as a team provided them real opportunity to change the lives of students and families.
Educators were constantly focused on ensuring the success of each and every student. “We’re not necessarily sure about how we will make it happen,” explained one teacher at Dandy Middle School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, “but, we’re not giving up until we get every student to a place where we know they will do well in high school.” While educators recognized the tremendous barriers they faced related to poverty, family traumas, racial issues, neighborhood violence, and a multitude of other concerns, they continued to assume that they could transform their schools into places where all children (from every demographic group) could excel, as measured by whichever variables they deemed important.
Educators expected themselves to lead students to understand challenging concepts and master complicated skills. In spite of challenges associated with their students’ low family incomes, prior lack of quality schooling, lack of mastery of academic English, or need for a vast array of social services, they chose to assume that they could plan together, implement strategies, examine learning results, and make smart refinements that would ultimately result in the success of each and every student at their school.
Educators exhibited a sense of urgency to shape programs, policies, and practices in ways that would lead each and every student to succeed. When teachers presented lessons, they wanted to know if students mastered the objectives taught. If they saw evidence that some students or groups of students did not demonstrate mastery, they wanted to know how they could make the lesson more effective. If all students demonstrated mastery, the teachers challenged themselves to consider what specific practices they might replicate and apply to other learning objectives so that students might experience additional successes. When teachers saw that a colleague’s students achieved great learning results, they did not respond with angst, skepticism, or jealousy, seeking reasons to discredit their colleague. Instead, they aimed to learn about the strategies, approaches, or techniques the colleague used that they might apply to help their own students achieve mastery.
For example, at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, when one teacher succeeded in helping almost all of her English learners to master a challenging literacy concept, the other teachers attentively took notes as the teacher explained the strategies she used to make concepts clear and familiar to her students. The culture of the school was such that academic successes were valued as professional learning opportunities.
While educators demanded much of themselves, they also provided each other with a high level of support. Often, interviewers heard teachers report, “We’re like a family here.” One teacher at Escontrias Elementary in El Paso, Texas explained, “We rally around each other. We try to help each other so that we can all be strong teachers. We’re OK as individuals, but as a team, we’re pretty amazing.”