Schools are under continual pressure to improve. Most major initiatives come as proposed changes.
Most school changes involve a culture shift for staff members. Some staff members have practices that are already close to the intended changes. Other staff members will be committed to practices that are not all that consistent with the intended practices. When our culture changes so do our identities, so this is not a trivial matter for many of those involved. But where does a school’s culture come from, and how might it be changed?
Culture is basically “the way we do things around here”. And the way we do things is continually constructed and reconstructed in the (everyday) conversations of those involved. In formal and informal conversations we continually construct (and reconstruct) our knowledge, actions, and arrangements. In the process we also construct and reconstruct our identities and relationships
Each conversation occurs in a context that involves the histories, hopes, commitments, identities, relationships and interests of those involved (staff, students, families, the school, its communities…) as well as policies, regulations and resources...
That is, the school's culture continues and/or changes (emerges) from the interactions of its people, hence changing the culture means changing the conversations.
In schools, ‘conversations’ occur at a range of levels including individual reflections, chats, meetings, workshops, publications, reporting... Conversations are central to formal processes such as policy implementation, scheduling, delegation, coordinating, staff selection, performance management and staff support (coaching, mentoring and debriefing)…
Somewhat paradoxically, while the school’s structure, and organisation, and associated staff roles co-evolve with the conversations they also enable and/or constrain the conversations that occur.
Conversations and leadership
From the above, school leadership is largely a matter of engaging in everyday conversations by affirming what is working, and shaping and reframing key concepts, purposes (values), relationships, observations, evaluations, possibilities, processes… all strengthened by the stories told about the school and its people.
Responsibility for school leadership frequently resides with principals and senior staff and it is fairly natural for staff to attend to the contributions that senior staff members make to the ongoing conversations within the school.
Consequently effective school leadership requires three things:
- A sound knowledge of the how the proposed changes can become part of the life, work and culture of the school
- Extensive participation in the life and work of the school, and
- The capacity to engage in, and shape, the everyday conversations occurring in the life and work of the school.