Given that his bread and butter on the speaking circuit is primarily about creating and maintaining a healthy school culture, it was hardly surprising that Anthony Muhammad came up with probably a dozen sound bites to emphasize the point during his keynote at the Canadian Association of Principals 35th annual conference in Saskatoon.
The Michigan-based educator, who spent just over a decade as a principal, has since immersed himself in all things research when it comes to transforming school culture, including having personally authored a book on the subject.
According to Muhammad, his passion for understanding change and establishing collaborative culture in schools can be traced to 2001 when he heard the venerable Richard DuFour speak about the subject with the professional learning community as the catalyst.
In his engaging, animated style, Muhammad said that while he was very disinterested initially, by the end of the conference he was a fanatic and would have gotten a tattoo if he had thought about it.
His sales pitch focused on the importance of the entire school staff buying in before there can be a substantive change in culture. Muhammad said this requires innovation and enrichment while confirming “you don’t need adult drama” in the process, and he also cited research that indicated to opt for “health” over “smart” if there needed to be a choice.
“It’s the intangibles like trust that are so important, but too often we favour those things we can measure. Some of the other stuff can be a bit messier, but that’s when you have to put your garden gloves on and dig in the dirt,” Muhammad added.
Speaking to the administrators in the room, whom he referred to as leaders in their respective schools from across the country, Muhammad stressed that climate and culture of a school are not synonymous. He added that “culture is how we behave; it doesn’t take long to change climate but that’s not nearly as impactful. Culture is how we behave collectively and we don’t need to make it complex–in fact it’s best to simplify and to use the human capital we have. It’s a mindset to create that collective synergy.”
However, although he went to considerable lengths to assure those in the audience that changing school culture is fundamentally quite simple, some ground rules need to be followed.
“Change is not just a four-letter word. It’s environment coupled with strategies where everyone is committed. That means you’re willing to confront some uncomfortable subjects depending on the circumstances that might exist. There can be no topics that are off the table. It’s a natural instinct for people to push away and I call that emotional cowardice. You need to create the opportunities for your staff to be enlightened because when people know better, they are better.”
The root of any such transformation has to be the students, according to Muhammad. He emphasized that there needs to be a collective commitment that success for all students who come through the door is not negotiable, even if how you get there might be.
“It takes some non-traditional thinking in some cases, but you need to provide those students with confidence in their own ability and that might mean having to build bridges when a student’s norms clash with the school’s norms. We want to liberate our students to think creatively and have them fall in love with who they are, and so you need to build on their strengths as opposed to their deficiencies.
“In a lot of cases it’s the role of the administration and teachers to activate those students’ strengths and confidence, and that has to be nurtured because it’s not always natural. But that’s what you need to have if you want a truly equitable school,” Muhammad noted.
As a word of caution in all this talk of change, Muhammad reminded administrators not to go initiative shopping, but to be very discerning so as to avoid innovation fatigue.