Cultures of Excellence

Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable.” 

“Culture” and “Excellence” are two words that get tossed around so frequently that, at times, I fear they are in danger of becoming meaningless. Yet, I never tire of talking about school culture and how we can create cultures of excellence because I am convinced that (as stated above) it enables us to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. Students and teachers can both perform at higher levels when working at schools with positive school cultures. Moreover, I have served in schools with almost identical characteristics and demographics that perform at distinctly different levels because of the school’s culture. We must not simply talk about excellence and culture; we must act intentionally to create and maintain a culture that is truly excellent, defining along the way not only what culture is but also what excellence means to us and what it looks like in our day-to-day actions and interactions. My good friend and colleague Jimmy Casas often implores us to, “Live your excellence,” rather than merely talking about it, I wholeheartedly agree and believe we must have conversations about what living our excellence sounds like and looks like.

Culture includes the norms, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, values, traditions, myths, and celebrations in place at any school. When working with educators on the topic of school culture, a good starting point is to examine shared values and explicitly create a list of core values that will guide subsequent beliefs and behaviors. I have seen this done successfully in any number of ways. I often start by suggesting that we all believe in excellence, obviously, and creating cultures of excellence.

However, the word “excellence,” as I suggested, is meaningless unless we drill down a bit deeper. I often ask teachers and administrators to fill in a simple blank, describing in single words what they would like their school’s culture to be known for. Whenever I pose this rather simple task, within seconds each person is able to share several compelling words that most everyone in attendance agrees would be laudable culture descriptors. I then share my own list on a slide (which varies regularly since there are so many enticing words to select):

What are some other words you would choose to describe the ideal culture you would like to be known for creating and working in? I would love to hear your thoughts. It is also interesting to look at one-word cultural values shared by non-school entities. Here are just a few examples I came across recently:

Cirrus Logic

  • Continuous Improvement
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Communication
  • Job Satisfaction
Clif Bar
  • Connect
  • Organic
  • Restore
  • Ethical
  • Performance
  • Passion
  • Integrity
  • Diversity

  • Genuine
  • Exceptional
  • Innovative
  • Involved

Of course, it is not enough to simply brainstorm one-word culture values; we must turn these cultural values into cultural commitments. We must create action steps to achieve them, moving, perhaps, from things we believe to things we will do. Again, there are an infinite number of ways to create these statements. I continue to favor the idea of “We Will” statements and limiting these to five total. At one school in which I served, we spent a significant amount of time debating these and then wordsmithing the final five Faculty Values Statements, which ultimately included the following:
  • We Will promote and insist on a safe and orderly learning environment.
  • We Will design and deliver meaningful and relevant daily learning experiences.
  • We Will treat every person in our school community with dignity and respect.
  • We Will innovate through experimentation.
  • We Will recognize and celebrate our many successes.

Once again, even these "We Will..." statements are not enough. We must then identify specific actions we can take to make each of these statements  a reality. Finally, we must all hold each other accountable for adhering to these. When a person fails to uphold these core values (which will happen, not because people are bad, but because life happens and we are not perfect) another person must address it, not as an accountability “gotcha,” but simply as an accountability reminder. A reminder that we said we were going to do these things and that it is important for us to do what we say we are going to do. In addition to everyone holding each other accountable for living their excellence by adhering to core values, we must also carve out time to actually practice the culture and celebrate instances when we see the culture being lived out loud.

Excellent school cultures do not happen by chance; they happen by choice. In schools with excellent cultures, educators choose to create shared values. They choose to practice and celebrate cultural values. They choose to reflect on the culture and measure how they are doing in the eyes of staff, students, and parents. Living our collective excellence by intentionally creating cultures of excellence is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...