In my last post, I wrote about the different reactions to ideas that are sometimes associated with unhealthy and healthy school climates. As a result, a reader left a comment in which he asked me for advice on how to move from an unhealthy to a healthy environment. I am happy to oblige, so here it goes.
The “Unhealthy” Climate
In order to explore how to move from unhealthy to healthy, I think we need to establish an agreed upon description on what an unhealthy school climate looks like. Unhealthy climates, in the most general sense, redirect the energy and focus of the school away from students and mission. In the place of students and mission, these climates struggle to move conversations and planning beyond addressing the “crisis of the day.”
There is also a higher degree of distrust, isolation, and political in-fighting among the various constituencies of the school. Good ideas quickly loose momentum as they get bogged down in negativity, and efforts to defend the idea against assumptions that the parties presenting the idea have motives that are self-serving rather than philanthropic.
The leadership of the school is spending so much time “putting out fires” that efforts to regroup and get back on track are pushed down their list of priorities.
Structurally, the policies and procedures have become outdated and are causing inefficiencies. Roadblocks caused by policy and procedures prevent and dampen the efforts to go above and beyond one’s immediate responsibilities for the benefit of the team.
Unhealthy climates are also lacking in celebrations, ceremony, and symbolic leadership. Daily events hold no more meaning other than what is seen at the surface of the event.
Diagnosing the exact areas to focus treatment options must include a multi-frame approach: an examination of the structural, political, symbolic, and human resource elements of the organizational climate.
The “Healthy” Climate
Now, lets turn our attention to a healthy climate. Simply described, healthy school climates are student-centered, mission-based, and growth-oriented. Conversations are collegial as well as congenial. The school leadership maintains a forward thinking vision and develops systems within the school that are mission-based, yet adaptable to future initiatives.
In healthy schools, there are no shortage of reminders about success. Effort and initiative are welcomed and expected among teachers and students. Because of these efforts, these schools do good work and set good examples for their students.
As with any effort to get healthy, the fact of the matter is that there is no quick or easy fix. Treating unhealthy schools will take time, energy, and plenty of effort. It will take an enormous and sustained effort by the school’s leadership to get out in the front of these efforts and support the teachers’ efforts towards getting healthy.
In order to move to a healthy environment, the first thing that needs to happen is for the leadership to completely accept that change cannot be avoided. Leading change is a complex issue, but the most important aspect of leading change is establishing trust. In other words, begin “walking the walk.”
Change also requires balance. Forcing the change is superficial. The change needs to come from within and genuine in order to have any chance of sustainable success. Leaders need to give people a chance to go through the process of accepting change. This is made easier when the leader communicates that change is required, why it is required, and explains how he or she is going to help everyone accomplish these changes. It is this last part, the telling how the leader will support the change effort, that is most often overlooked.
Leaders must remember that there is a HUGE difference between “Follow me!” and “Go there!”
Choose, “Follow me!”
The Recovery and The Commitment
Recovery times vary depending on how unhealthy the climate was originally. I have seen some schools make extraordinary changes and become extremely healthy in a relatively short time. These are usually schools that had a solid foundation and clear mission, but needed to clear some plaque in order to refocus on what mattered most.
On the other hand, some changes need plenty of time because the dysfunction runs too deep. Some schools, once the true issues are identified, need to go through significant multi-layered adjustments. Structurally, policies and procedures may need amending. Symbolically, important events and traditions need to be nurtured to bring value to seemingly ordinary happenings. Political differences need to mending and new coalitions need to be established.
The key to sustained recovery and growth is making the commitment to developing the habits of healthy schools. Recovery is not easy and good leaders inspire the school to identify and treat the unhealthy parts of the organization.
Great leaders take the new healthy school and deliver on the commitment to sustain growth and long term health.