Tuesday / June 25

When School Culture is Tangled

The culture exists to manage the organization in its present state. If we could talk to culture, the future would be clear: The culture would tell us, just repeat the past.” – Gruenert and Whitaker, 2015

When educational leaders are new to their position, or newly confronting an issue, they quickly realize that they inherit all that has come before them. What was once institutional history, another leader’s platform, or ‘past practice’, is now the new leader’s landscape.

Sometimes this inheritance presents tremendous opportunities, but it can also pose steep challenges. It stands to reason that almost all challenges a leader comes into ultimately affect the culture and climate. No doubt, growing and improving school culture is complex, and often contentious work. Stakeholders can have mixed expectations of leaders in these circumstances—some expect actionable change on a fast timeline, while others can be fiercely protective of current conditions. No matter what, a leader must decode the culture and issues within, in order to support and improve teaching and learning.

Unscramble the Code

Key to creating this readiness is shaping the meaning of change. Savvy leaders do this through a combination of pressure and support.” – Evans, 2010

An early challenge in unscrambling the ‘culture code’ is keeping in mind that no single person holds the keys. The code is actually held by the collective culture, and comprised of unwritten norms, values, practices, decision-making, influences, and power. Leaders can best lead with questions, not answers, in order to learn the varied perspectives on any given issue. Be aware that as the level of leadership inquiry rises, so does the level of potential fear and resistance.

Questions to consider:

  • Be present where the issue may lie—classrooms, meetings, committees, and informal settings. Walk through, sit and listen, and be observant. What do you see, hear, and feel? How do these experiences inform your understanding of the issue?
  • Lead with inquiry to learn from stakeholders about an issue. Say, “I was wondering,” and “I wanted to learn more about….” Demonstrate to stakeholders that you want to learn about both the history and present practice of a topic.
  • Inquire with neutrality. If a leader inquires with urgency, it skews the feedback and can cause a feeling of emergency in the culture. Those providing feedback may feel like they have done something wrong, or should be more actionable about the issue. How the leader asks questions matters. Probing with neutrality requires gentle inquiry and open listening skills without importing a verbal or non-verbal reaction or assessment. Leaders should also be cautious to not espouse opinion or direction when taking feedback under advisement.
  • Ask a wide variety of stakeholders. Talk to teachers, paraprofessionals, and district administrators to understand the many views on any one issue. Also talk to students and parents. Too often when educational leaders study an issue, they favor asking educators’ opinions, and sometimes overlook those most impacted by the initiative—the learners and their families. By taking time to seek feedback from a diverse stakeholder group, the leader will gain a more rounded understanding of the pros and cons of any given endeavor.
  • Be ready for unexpected issues. Remember that one door opens ten more. The leader may inquire about a curriculum, for example, but instantly be led down the road of issues involving decision-making, instructional practice, technology, student assessment, and parent perception. It’s important to keep in mind that there are primary issues and tertiary issues. Stay focused on the primary issues, and don’t get lost down the road of issues that are secondary to the major issue that started concerns in the first place.

Make the Invisible Visible

To make the case, a leader must disconfirm people’s readings of the situation and their satisfaction with their present practices…but it often means challenging them to face realities they have preferred to avoid. Effective implementation thus begins with candid discussion.” -Evans, 2010

Once the leader has thoroughly explored major questions about past and current practice, it’s time to make one’s leadership thinking transparent and more widely known. By openly sharing what has been learned and what further questions the leader is thinking about, naturally elevates urgency within the culture. When a leader unfolds an issue, it is important to do so with purpose and thought. Putting in the advance time around planning, timing, presentation, location, and next steps helps build the groundwork for authentic, meaningful and constructive processes.

Questions to consider:

  • What is the key issue I want to open up for discussion and why?
  • Think about the logistics of your discussion. Who will be part of that discussion? When will I have that discussion? How will I have that discussion?
  • How can I best express the purpose of the discussion? What is my reasoning for the discussion?
  • How will I convey my understanding and recent observations of the issue?
  • What urgency will I be creating when I open up this discussion? How will this ultimately help students and their learning?
  • What outcomes am I hoping for? What are the anticipated and unanticipated outcomes of exposing the issue and elevating urgency within the culture?
  • How can I demonstrate to stakeholders that by making the invisible, visible, we are much stronger for our students?

Take the Issues Head On

Unfreezing is a matter of lessening one kind of anxiety, the fear of trying, but first mobilizing another kind of anxiety, the fear of not trying.” – Evans, 2001 describing Edgar Schein’s concept of unfreezing culture

 When a leader has acknowledged the cultural ‘elephant in the room’, or made an issue more widely known, it’s time for collective action. An effective leader displays that this is not the work of one—it must be many. The solution does not lie within any one individual, including the leader. It’s the “we” and the “us” that will bring about the change, not the “I”. Communicate that seemingly isolated issues are often actually cloaked in larger dilemmas that persist over time, and there are usually complex reasons for this. Dilemmas cannot be solved efficiently with a quick, first-order level change of procedure. Instead, second-order change involves layers of stakeholders, routine and participatory discussion, shared-decision making, communication loops—and time. Making change and making it stick is a time-consuming process. All substantial change can take at least five years before it becomes accepted practice; so be prepared to commit to the long haul.

Questions to consider:

  • Who is most involved in the issue or dilemma? Who, besides these stakeholders, also needs to be involved?
  • How will you communicate why this is a dilemma and why being committed over the long-term is essential for students and their learning?
  • How will stakeholders be involved and how often? What is the level of their participation and decision-making?
  • How will you continually communicate with immediate and broader level stakeholders on where you are in studying the process and what actions you plan to take?
  • Be prepared to ask for help. Leaders who ask for help are far more appreciated, than those who attempt to ‘go it alone’ on the road of change.
  • Make visible mid-course corrections. Demonstrate to stakeholders that learning is a process for all of us, and depending on what we discover in our change process, small changes of course may be needed.
  • Be ready that the outcome you were intending is not necessarily the outcome that results. The beauty and complexity of making change with many people over time is that the outcome is almost always certain to be different than the leader’s initially anticipated thinking——-but guaranteed, the outcome will be even better.

Design with the End in Mind

The art is to combine reach and realism…savvy leaders don’t abandon their commitments but they also don’t ignore psychological and organizational realities.” – Evans, 2010

Leaders are always thinking ahead, and conjecturing as to what might be possible in the future. While one can never predict the exact outcome of a change process, it is fair to say that leaders ‘design with the end in mind.’ For example, if we want to help eradicate disproportionality in special education, then we engage in backwards design from that outcome. Leaders need to be open to the idea that how we get there, who is involved, and what our timeline looks like needs to be flexible. When untangling the complexity of culture, we know this:leaders must commit to listening from all angles first, learning through inquiry, and engaging in transparent multi-stakeholder dialogue. When a leader lifts isolated issues into larger dilemmas that can be studied to improve the culture, this helps a community translate past practice to new beginnings. Leaders must remember to ask for help, be humble enough to make mid-course corrections, and open to unexpected outcomes, which will also help the culture arrive at new and improved ways to support teaching and learning, as well as sustain a healthy organizational culture.


Evans, R. (2001). The human side of school change : reform, resistance, and the real-life

problems of innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, R. (2010). Seven secrets of the savvy school leader : a guide to surviving and thriving.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired : how to define, assess, and

transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Written by

Sandra A. Trach is Special Assistant to the Superintendent in Lexington Public Schools, Lexington, Massachusetts. Her principalships and 25 years of diverse experience have led her schools to perform at consistently high levels, and her principalships have been recognized for academic and cultural success. Sandra is a new author with Corwin who actively writes, mentors and presents nationally. You can find Sandra on Twitter @SandraTrach and

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