School Culture Essentials: Help. Thanks. Wow.

"The culture of a workplace--an organization's values, norms, and practices--has a huge impact on our 
happiness and success."
Adam Grant

I first became aware of Anne Lamott when I was teaching writing
and came across her 1994 book, Bird By Bird, a thoroughly enjoyable book with helpful 
tips on writing and living. Recently, I read her 2012 book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Although I enjoyed the book immensely, my takeaway for the purposes of this blog post has little to do with the content of this book--other than the title itself, and how that remarkable title might apply to education, specifically school culture.

At a recent What Great Educators Do Differently conference, Jimmy Casas and I were leading a session on "Building Culture and Leading Learning." During the session, I asked school leaders to reflect on what they would like others to say about their school culture, filling in the following blank with five different words:

I would like our school to be noted for its Culture of _________________ .

We brainstormed a wealth of inspiring ideas, including the hope that our schools might be marked by cultures of: Learning, Compassion, Caring, Results, Commitment, Innovation, Risk-Taking, Safety, and Excellence, to name but a few. Rather spontaneously, I thought of Lamott’s book I had recently finished and shared with the audience that I would also like to work in a school known for a culture in which Help, Thanks, and Wow were interwoven in the daily teaching, learning, leading, and living at the school. What if our schools were filled with students and staff who continuously sought help and offered it to others? Who consistently expressed gratitude for all the blessings in existence within the school community? Who never failed to express awe and wonder at the amazing things happening each day at the school? So many things are in play when we talk about "school culture." It includes the norms, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, values, practices, celebrations, traditions, and myths that exist. Perhaps it also includes what Lamott identifies as her three simple prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow.

Essential Culture Characteristic #1: "Help": In the session we were leading recently, Jimmy made a statement I have heard him suggest on countless occasions. The four most powerful words in leadership are: “I need your help.” In a school marked by a culture of helping, we must not only embrace this sentiment, but expand upon it. Every staff member in the school and every student in the school must be comfortable seeking help from everyone else in the schoolhouse. Teachers must ask for and provide help to each other. Principals must ask for help from students and staff and provide help in return. Students must be assured that asking for help is normal and part of the school’s culture. I remember when I began my first year of teaching many years ago. I was very nervous and unsure of how to actually teach, including designing lesson plans for my first graders. During my first week of working at the school, I asked a veteran teacher if I could look at her lesson plan book so I could get some ideas for my own classroom. Although this person became a close friend who I grew to respect, I will never forget her answer. She flat out refused, telling me she had to figure it out for herself and I would have to as well. In 2019, I desperately hope this is no longer the case. No matter what your role is in a school--administrator, teacher, teacher assistant, or student--your job is tough--and made only more challenging if forced to do it alone. We must create school cultures in which asking for assistance on a regular basis without fear of repercussions is a way of life. Cultivate your “Help” culture today.

Essential Culture Characteristic #2: "Thanks": Schools with strong cultures are populated with people who genuinely appreciate all the good that is occurring therein. They take time to notice when a student helps another student, when a colleague comforts a student who is hurting, when a principal goes out of her way to celebrate staff members. They do not take these small kindnesses for granted, but, instead, take a moment to reflect on how thankful they are to be working in a school, where so much good happens so often. Moreover, they heed the advice of Gladys Bronwyn Stern’s “Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone" admonition and share their gratitude with others. We must create school cultures in which appreciating the good we witness throughout the daily grind becomes a way of life. Cultivate your “Thanks” culture today.

Essential Culture Characteristic #3: "Wow": In schools, we are fortunate to experience hundreds of of daily incidents for which we can be thankful. Perhaps even more remarkable, we work in places where awe-inspiring and legitimately wonderful things take place regularly. Things that not only make us thankful, but leave us awestruck. A student who has struggled for years to read suddenly cracks the code and becomes a voracious reader. A dedicated school nurse prevents a tragedy by acting quickly when a student experiences a medical emergency. An entire school donates their time, money, and resources to improving some aspect of the community in which they live. A student designs a product that is subsequently used in a local business. A student singing the national anthem before a basketball game brings tears to everyone in attendance. An entire school makes time to recognize the contributions of the school custodian. Things are happening in our schools every single day which make me stop what I am doing and simply say (silently or aloud), “Wow!” We must create school cultures in which feeling awe at the amazing things happening in our schools regularly becomes a way of life. Cultivate your “Wow” culture today.

I want to express my Thanks to Anne Lamott for inspiring this blog post. Her writing always Helps me and leaves me with a sense of Wow.  

School culture is comprised of many things and, as Adam Grant suggests, has a huge impact on our happiness and success. We can behave in certain (and oftentimes simple) ways to create a culture in which that impact is profoundly positive. Three simple (and essential) ways are to follow Lamott’s advice, ensuring that we ask for assistance, appreciate the good, and recognize the awe surrounding us each day. Creating school cultures in which we seek help, express gratitude and feel awe are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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