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Staff Leadership and Management

The Challenge of Creating a Culture

group of 4 people in a garden holding multi-colored thought bubble posters

Almost every day, I am a teacher, a student, or a leader.

Sometimes I play one role at a time. Sometimes I play all three at once. One could say I dance in between them. I’m sure that all of us who work with youth move between these roles and watch our peers and our students do the same.

The question I keep coming back to, no matter what role I am in, is how do I create a culture that I can be proud of and inspired to be a part of? And what I mean by culture in this context is the feeling in the room when youth come in, or the essence of our staff meetings, or the way we work problems out when they arise, or the way we walk our talk as related to our organizational mission. I’m talking about the kind of culture that is obvious. If a new student walks in, they will know by the décor on the wall, by the way they are greeted, by the feeling in their heart when they leave, and by the idea of what it would be like to come again.

Creating a culture that everyone at your organization (or school, or program) can be proud of and excited to be part of is no easy task!

I ask myself every day…what am I contributing to the culture of my organization? I think it is one of the most important questions we can ask. I think caring about the culture of our organization is important, period. Even if we have a great mission, wonderful resources, a program with a waiting list… I still think that to be in integrity and to be conscious about how/whom we serve, we must explore the culture which lives beyond our actual programs. It’s like the body language of the organization. It’s the unspoken. It’s the intangible. It’s not something that just “happens.”

I think a good way to start exploring the culture you are creating is to ask your students or participants the following questions. What is the essence of this place?

  • How does coming here make you feel?
  • What do you wish were different?
  • If you could change just one thing about this place, what would it be?
  • Do you feel like you are represented and supported here?

Gather all of that information from the students. And then go and ask every staff member the same questions. Then gather all of that information and take it to a staff meeting. Explore the student and staff feedback and look for the common denominators. Pick the top 3-5 and brainstorm as a whole group (students and staff) about how to make sure those commonalities are reflected in the culture. Those commonalities are the blind spots. I know we have them where I work. I know we all have them.

I invite all of us to start exploring the culture of where we work, and ask the hard questions about what can be improved and what can be celebrated. It’s always a mix, isn’t it?

The quote below was sent to me recently by a friend, and I am using it as a talisman as I dive each day into the task of teaching and leading an organization. The quote was written by Parker J. Palmer and was taken from his book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.

“The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts — meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”

I definitely plan on buying this book, exploring my inner landscape, and hoping that my exploration can shift my outer landscape, the culture of where I work every day.

For breakfast today, I had my chaifee (chai mixed with coffee), strawberries with almond butter, and corn bread with Earth Balance.

This post originally appeared on the Breakfast Club Blog on June 14, 2010.

Author: Erika Malone

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