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Beliefs, Behaviors, Experiences

Many years ago, I graduated from college and immediately began working as a long-term substitute teacher in an alternative school setting for eight months. This was a stressful job, working with middle and high school students who had been removed from the public-school setting for fighting, severe truancy, drug use, and/or possession of firearms at school. I was new, innocent, naïve, and focused on fixing the problems of my students. As my colleagues and I struggled through situations in which my students became verbally and physically aggressive, I quickly noticed this was going to be much more challenging than I originally thought. I could feel the tension in the voices of fellow staff members when I engaged with them and could see the exhaustion on their faces and in their body language.

A universal coping mechanism for all staff members at this school was smoking cigarettes. During their time away from students, they would go outside to light up. As I felt the emotional toll of the job in the first month, I followed suit and started smoking. This was something I had never done in the past. In fact, I saw my mother constantly battle with nicotine addiction throughout my childhood and could not understand why people would start doing this, yet here I was, striking up like everyone else at the facility. There was an invisible force at play shaping my behavior: the culture was dictating how I should act. Although I am in charge of my own decisions and no one at this alternative school was outwardly pressuring me to smoke, the culture of the organization was constantly signaling to me, “This is what we do to relieve stress.”


School, district, and organizational culture consistently influences the behavior of individuals across the globe, which can be good, but it also presents challenges. When you enter a school you can sense the culture. Whether it is the initial interaction with a school secretary walking through the office doors, observing décor on the walls, listening to conversations in the hallways among staff members, observing the principal leading professional learning with teachers, or seeing faculty engage with students, all these experiences elicit emotions and provide strong indicators of the school culture. We are well aware of these indicators and emotions, but what exactly is school culture? Common phrases include:

● The way things are done around here.

● The underlying norms that direct plans and decisions.

● The written and unwritten rules.

While I like pieces of these familiar descriptions, I favor the clarity Tim Kight provides regarding culture. The founder and CEO of Focus 3 describes culture as three things:

1. What a group of people believe,

2. How they behave, and

3. The experience they deliver to others and receive in return (Kight, 2020).


Belief, behavior, and experience. When we are able to clarify our individual and collective organizational beliefs, align our behaviors to match these beliefs, and deliver excellent experiences to each other and those we serve, we can create thriving cultures in our schools. Furthermore, we must realize the unmistakable impact that establishing cultures focused on energy, involvement, and efficacy have within our schools.


I am happy to report that I stopped smoking when I no longer worked at this alternative school facility. I am grateful for the experience, though, as it helped me become aware of the strong invisible influence of organizational culture. While the evidence related to the negative consequences of dysfunctional organizational culture is overwhelming and very real, the good news is, it does not have to be this way. With intentional approaches and relatively simple tactics, leaders can dismantle dysfunction and promote an engaging culture in their school settings. In my new book, Permission to be Great, I walk you through how to do this, while sharing success stories, proven leadership practices, engagement enhancers, and self-care strategies that will allow you to lead your school or district toward positive change.


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