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Shaping school culture through change from within

Education Matters

Therese Ferguson-Murray

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

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Think for a moment about the school where you work, the school your children attend (or where you attended as a student), or the school within the community in which you live. Have you ever consciously considered the visible elements of this institution, such as the way staff and students dress, the school's mission statement, the awards, plaques, and trophies displayed, and even the architecture of the school? Do you ever ponder its invisible aspects such as the values it holds dear — excellence, quality, or diversity? Or are there other values and combinations of values prioritised? Elements such as these contribute to the shaping of the school's culture.

School culture is the shared values, beliefs, norms, traditions, and rituals of a school. It develops over time through the interactions and relationships formed amongst its different stakeholders, including the principal, staff, students, parents, and community members. School culture is critical for consideration by all those involved in teaching and learning. Why? Simply put, the culture of any organisation, whether a school or otherwise, influences how well (or poorly) it performs. To elaborate, the culture of a school influences various factors such as the motivation and commitment levels of staff and students, the efforts at educational innovation, the performance of teachers and students, and the ways in which the stakeholders work together to achieve the desired and intended outcomes of education, to name just a few key elements.

The Change from Within programme in Jamaica, which has been featured in this column previously, from the outset has understood this notion of school culture and the factors critical to transforming negative school cultures. Founded in 1992, the programme focuses on changing school cultures characterised by indiscipline and violence, as well as low self-esteem amongst staff and students. The School of Education at The University of the West Indies has implemented the programme since 2002. Utilising a methodology which calls for change driven internally by various school stakeholders — principals, teachers and other staff members, students, parents, and community members — the programme has achieved noticeable success over the years in changing the cultures of schools that have been a part of the programme. How has the programme accomplished this cultural change in schools? Its eight-pillared methodology provides much insight as its components connect with important elements of school culture. I will touch on a few of these elements.

Leadership development

One critical element of the programme's methodology focuses on the development and capacity-building of school leaders. Indeed, leadership is a critical element in shaping and changing school culture. The leader's vision, moral purpose, verbal and non-verbal communication, and relationships with school stakeholders are critical. Consequently, the Change from Within programme focuses much of its effort on building leadership skills, for instance, through the programme's Circle of Friends, which brings together principals, vice-principals, and other school leaders in monthly meetings where challenges faced are voiced, possible solutions discussed, and best practices shared.

Additionally, the Circle of Friends, over the years, has helped leaders to reflect upon and challenge their own beliefs, assumptions, and ways of understanding. It is these inner belief systems and assumptions that influence our understandings of the world and the actions we take based on these understandings. Importantly, then, it is in the questioning of these ways of thinking that our minds are opened up to other perspectives, other ways of seeing, other alternatives. In other words, asking oneself why do I see students in this way, and why do I believe this or that about teaching is critical for any change process. Changing oneself, first and foremost, is necessary before we can change anything else.

Lifelong learning, reflection, and dialogue

Another element of the Change from Within programme's methodology focuses on training initiatives for staff and students. These training and capacity-building events allow participants to engage in reflection and personal learning, as well as to dialogue and collaborate with colleagues. These elements move individuals towards the shared consensus, commitment, and vision that is necessary to unify individuals so that they are working together towards change.

Recently, the Change from Within programme benefited from a period of funding through the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. This was utilised to deliver a series of training workshops for school management and academic staff in areas such as conflict management and restorative justice, interpersonal relationships and stress management, and various teaching methodologies. Each workshop was facilitated by individuals who designed activities that allowed participants to reflect on various aspects of their contexts and practices, and to dialogue with colleagues within their schools as well as across the schools currently involved in the programme. For instance, in the workshop held on conflict management and restorative justice, the two facilitators — Pauletta Chevannes (founding member of the Change from Within programme and the former programme leader) and Keisha-Ann Down (the programme's senior accredited coach) — had participants work together to define conflict, manifestations of conflict, and the impacts on learning. Additionally, participants were offered the space to reflect upon their own responses to conflict and whether they were comfortable with these responses. This reflection and dialogue is critical to opening up new ways of dealing with situations of conflict. Similarly, in another workshop which looked at the use of silence in teaching, facilitators Dr Lorna Down (member of the Change from Within programme team) and Keisha-Ann Down crafted activities which allowed individuals to engage in periods of silence and to reflect on these periods and the ways in which they could be utilised to foster inner peace and allow students moments of clarity and reflection.

Stakeholder participation

The ideas of involving all school stakeholders in decision-making and the wider change process is another element. The literature on school culture speaks to the need to ensure broad participation in decision-making within schools. The Change from Within programme's methodology encompasses this by including parents, community members, and children, alongside staff members, in decision-making and the wider change process.

For instance, in the February 7, 2017 piece on the programme, Allman Town Primary School was featured with its principal, Kandi-Lee Crooks-Smith, sharing the ways in which community members and parents have been involved in forging change within the school.

School culture, performance, and change

The notion of school culture is a critical one in education, and research shows its significance in the overall performance of schools. Additionally, when one is thinking about school change, as well as wider educational reform, consideration of school culture becomes a critical element as the culture of a school can either facilitate or inhibit change and reform processes. The Change from Within programme actively works, through its internally driven methodology, to change the cultures of schools which are part of the programme — cultures characterised by indiscipline and antisocial behaviours to cultures where trust and rapport are present, and where the morale and self-esteem of staff and students are lifted. Consequently, the Change from Within programme can serve as a model for those interested in studying the ways in which elements of school culture can be positively shaped through change processes and, by extension, contribute to the overall improvement of schools.

Dr Therese Ferguson-Murray is a lecturer in education for sustainable development in the School of Education, The University of the West Indies. She also is project leader of the Change from Within programme.

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