Culture Building: One Day at a Time

Thomas C. Murray
March 10, 2019

Thomas C. Murray

Designing Personal and Authentic Learning Experiences, Best Selling Author, and National/Global EdTech Leader of the Year
Traveling the country and working with school and district leaders over the past four years has significantly altered my lens. Spending fourteen years in the same district in Pennsylvania was an incredible blessing. I worked with so many dynamic, kid-loving people. Over my tenure there, our teams had come together during some of the most difficult times and also celebrated together through the joys we experienced. In reflection, the downside of spending my entire k-12 career in one district was that my personal education lens and understanding became very narrow over time. Even though I worked at all levels in that system, it was the same community, many of the same adults, and many of the same leaders, year after year. (Please know that I see nothing wrong with being in one district and absolutely commend those that pour their lives into a single place for their entire career. I also absolutely loved where I was for those 14 years.) For me, that community and those [amazing] people, were all that I knew. My point in sharing my personal reflection is that today I see so many things that other educators experience regularly, that were much smaller spots on my radar. A few examples: – Although I was a principal of two difference Title 1 buildings; and both had significant levels of socioeconomic needs, now spending time in buildings where every child lives in poverty has given me more empathy for those who have far less and appreciate things that at times I took for granted in my work. – Where I worked, technology had been plentiful for years. I received a laptop as a brand new teacher, in 2000. Today, some teachers are just receiving personal devices for the first time, while others still yearn for that day to come. – Working with rural schools, which often lack the needed bandwidth to provide additional opportunities for students, puts connectivity much more on my radar than when leveraging technology worked pretty seamlessly for me as a teacher and administrator. Although the list of where my lens has shifted could be expanded exponentially, there are also conversations I have with educators around themes that no matter what state I’m in, the demographics of the community they serve, or the budget in which they operate, are very similar in nature and where most things are agreed upon. Some examples include: – The importance of teacher leadership. – The desire for student agency. – The incredible talents of our nation’s children. So what’s one area that never seems to go out of focus? The importance of school culture. I recently had the opportunity to spend time with one of my closest friends, Jimmy Casas. Jimmy is a long-time educator, and the author of the best-selling book, Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever it Takes. Jimmy is also one of the best community builders that I’ve ever met. As you saw in the video above, I asked Jimmy for one simple idea to build culture in schools. Jimmy shares the concept of “two a day,” an idea he gained from colleague and friend Jeff Zoul, where he’d take two note cards each day and write an encouraging, authentic note to two different staff members. Essentially, Jimmy points to a simple way in which he was able to help own the culture in which he was a part. The difficulty lies not in the fact that people agree that culture is vital to a school’s success. That’s pretty much a given. The difficulty comes when not every person owns the culture in which they are a part. The idea is easy. Abdicating the responsibility is also easy. Placing the blame and pointing the finger is easy. Owning one’s part in it all is what’s challenging. A school’s culture is the culmination of every interaction that occurs within it. So how do you build your school’s culture? How do you help create a culture where people want to be? When you walk into the faculty room, do you build the energy up? Or, do you suck the air right out? It’s no secret that school and district leadership set the tone for the culture within it; but to attempt to make the case that they are the only ones responsible for it is amazingly misguided. What can you do tomorrow to move your school’s culture forward one step? Who’s that person on staff that needs some additional encouragement? Who’s that student that can help lead the way? Having been to so many amazing schools over the past four years, I’ve also come to realize that creating school cultures where people want to be does not happen by chance. Creating cultures that people want to run to happens when the adults in the building are intentional with their interactions…one day at a time. Will your interactions tomorrow help make your school a place people want to be? Or, a place people want to run from? What’s your role in the process? How does your own lens impact your thought process here? The good news? No matter what you feel the condition of your school culture currently is, tomorrow is the first step in the remaining part of your journey. My advice? Be intentional. Be real. Build capacity in others. Work to understand your internal bias. Own your role in the work and don’t abdicate the responsibility we all have in creating the schools where our students will thrive. The work is hard, but our kids are worth it. All for the kids we serve,      
Thomas C. Murray

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