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Building School Culture for Founding Leaders

Let's delve into what school culture is about and the impact it can have with founding leadership. According to Michael Fullan a former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto states that: school culture can be defined as the guiding beliefs and values evident in the way a school operates. As the inaugural leader of a startup school, I placed great significance on discerning the precise identity the school aimed to convey through its guiding beliefs and values. The visual representation of this identity is crucial, as it profoundly influences perceptions within the local community, students, staff, and parents. How this image is crafted and presented holds substantial weight in shaping the overall impact and resonance with the various stakeholders.

Over the past 12 years, as I've established startup schools, my aim here is to impart the key steps I've gathered. These key steps have helped me with forward thinking and navigating the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship, fostering growth and innovation in the process. Here are a few of the top steps I did upon entering into a new startup school. The first step I took was to visit the community and understand the presence it played in the school. This allowed me to align myself with existing expectations and effectively lead and gain the trust of the school community. For example, I asked the school secretary and admissions director to give me a tour of the area the school was established in. This allowed for me to learn about the “why” of the school’s purpose. Most importantly my learning about the countries culture, local heritage buildings, foods, statues, and language helped allowed me to navigate relationships, build trust, along with fostering a positive collaborative environment.

The subsequent action I undertook involved assessing the morale of the staff. I hosted a school wide barbeque for staff. Meeting the staff in this stress-free environment allowed me to observe interactions, listen to conversations, and gauge the overall atmosphere, providing valuable insights into the dynamics and sentiments within the team. Another area I participated in was the Professional Development training workshops. Being a participant, I gained valuable firsthand experiences, allowing me to better understand the content, challenges, and potential improvements that could enhance the professional growth of both me and the staff. By partaking in these sessions, I was able to adapt within the decision-making dynamics of school culture to make informed and well received choices. Another annual event that takes place during the onboarding of new staff is team-wide classroom shopping. Grade level teams are allocated a specific budget for their yearly classroom needs, and they collectively decide how to allocate the funds at the beginning of the year. The division principals set a date for the outing, and the entire school takes the morning off for the shopping activity. This event has proven to be beneficial in fostering friendships, creating lasting memories, and promoting positive collaboration among the staff.

The cultural dynamics of communication and innovative changes have made me conscious of critical factors in cultivating an environment that prioritizes student success and facilitates effective teaching practices among the faculty. For instance, one school marketed itself as a premier English language immersion institution, supplemented by Mandarin as a second language. However, I discovered that students were acquiring a third and fourth language, and parents were primarily focused on having their child become English proficient only and not in Mandarin. It appeared Mandarin could be considered an optional addition rather than an integral part of the mainstream curriculum, as parents emphasized meeting the English admission requirements for private primary schools in the area. As a newly appointed leader, I successfully recognized and adjusted to the decision-making dynamics inherent in the school culture, enabling me to make well-informed decisions that were positively received by both students and teachers.

Culture is knowing the core beliefs and behavior. Whether it's organized well or not, what people believe and how they behave is influenced by the messages leaders and others in the organization convey. As a new founding leader for start up schools, you have the power to influence. By doing so, you can build strong relationships, make informed decisions, foster a positive and collaborative environment, and ultimately contribute to the success and well-being of the school community. Bridwell-Mitchell a professor of Education, Management and Organizational Behavior at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education stated; "strong connections among every member of the school community reinforce the circle at every point. Once principals understand what constitutes culture — once they learn to see it not as a hazy mass of intangibles, but as something that can be pinpointed and designed — they can start to execute a cultural vision".

I trust that this practical knowledge will assist you as you embark on establishing your school. If you ever need advice or someone to listen, please visit our contact page and send us a message.

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