School Improvement Starts with Culture

Be that #oneperson

Great companies that build an enduring brand have an emotional relationship with customers that have no barrier. And that emotional relationship is built on the most important characteristic, which is trust. Howard Schultz – Starbucks CEO

Leaders, One simple question: “How much time do you spend on shaping the culture of your organization?” You see- your culture is being formed with or without you. Visitors to your school can feel your culture within seconds of entering your building. Simple cultural distinctions like:

  1. What do the walls in your school communicate?
  2. How does the building secretary greet visitors?
  3. How do students greet fellow students in the hallways?

There are thousands of different definitions of organizational culture. Most of them I am not smart enough to understand and explain to my staff. I simply say to my staff our culture is defined by “How we do things around here.” This simple definition allows our school district to keep a “laser like focus” on maintaining and creating a positive school culture. I will share 2 strategies that I use to shape school culture. Please feel to “pushback” on any of these ideas. I will be sharing more ideas at the School Administrators of Iowa Conference on Wednesday, August 6th. I would love to see you at my session.

Strategy 1

No Complaining Rule

We have an expectation that everyone looks for solutions. In many situations, teachers have the best solutions to issues at school. This agreement has empowered teachers to share those solutions to building principals. This rule has also lowered the amount of mindless complaining, which adds to the toxicity of school culture.

The No Complaining Rule

“Employees are not allowed to mindlessly complain to their co-workers. If they have a complaint they can take it to the principal/superintendent or someone who can do something about the problem, BUT they must also offer one or two possible solutions.”

The intention is to eliminate mindless complaining which leads to a toxic work environment and encourage justified complaints that lead to new ideas, innovation and success.

Strategy 2

The second strategy comes from the work of Jamie Vollmer, and his book, Schools Can’t Do It Alone. The words below appear in page 185. We remind our entire staff about the importance of the thoughts below. Five years ago, bad mouthing was a prevalent problem. However, over time as we focused heavily on this strategy, the pride, morale and commitment in our district has grown.

Stop bad-mouthing
one another in public

(See page 185.)

Teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, administrators, and board members must stop bad-mouthing one another and their schools in public. This destructive behavior is pervasive, and it is the epitome of lose-lose behavior: it undermines the reputation of the speaker while simultaneously grinding down the public’s opinion of their local schools.

There is no doubt that many educators have reasons to complain. They struggle with an ever-increasing list of academic, social, and medical responsibilities. They resent being forced to raise America’s kids without adequate support, and they are bitter about the growing disrespect displayed by students, parents, and the public. There are times when the fury and frustration become too much to bear. But venting in public is a nasty habit that solves nothing. If silence and restraint become impossible to maintain, there is an acceptable release: Gripe to your spouse. That’s why we have them.

As always, I leave you with an exercise that you can do with your school staff to help remind educators why we are in the business of making the world a better place.

#Oneperson Action Item:

  1. Copy and paste this definition to a document and hand out to all staff

  1. Please give you staff five minutes to read and discuss the definition. Maintain a straight face, and tell your staff that “This is a very important document and everyone needs to try to memorize this!”
  1. Have this clip ready to go… Ask your staff to pay close attention to this clip as it will help them understand the definition above.
  1. After the clip, smile and tell your staff to make a paper ball with the definition and throw it across the room. We don’t need fancy definitions- culture is simply, “The way we do things around here”  This is fun to watch
  1. This activity should conclude with a quick discussion about school culture and why it is important.

Hope to see you!

School Administrators of Iowa Annual Conference

 Presenter- Joel Pedersen

 Topic – School Improvement Starts with School Culture

Meeting Rooms – 302-304

Date and Time – Wednesday, Aug. 6 from 2:05-2:45



  1. Joel,
    Your two rules are “doable” and “practical” ways to work on culture. Great advice in your blog. Love that you are sharing at SAI – Congratulations on your writing and your session!

  2. Good stuff, Joel: nothing trumps culture. I am sharing Jamie’s four actions in the informal track of the Great Conversation in my opening address to ICSD staff. Thanks for sharing

  3. Thank you for this post. I have already sent a copy to my admin. The rules are simple, but I know we have a rough road ahead.

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