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How to Improve School Cultures, Part 6: Think Like a Gardener, Work Like a Carpenter

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Culture transcends strategy.

–Ryan Holiday, Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue

There are no quick fixes for better school cultures. You don't bring in a consultant or a training program and then there we go, all better. School cultures emerge constantly from the complex interplay of skills, leadership, meetings, arguments, and PD. We all make culture, all the time.

I need to move on from this topic of school culture for a time,* but I'd like to circle back to someone who started us on this little learning journey of ours: Dan Coyle. This time, I'll pull not from his book on culture, but from his little one on talent. At the very end of this book, Coyle makes some remarks that I couldn't help applying to the work of intentional culture-making. In the quotation that follows, I'm replacing words like “skills” and “talent” — the focus of the book — with culture. I hope Mr. Coyle doesn't mind.

From p. 113 of The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, by Dan Coyle:

 We all want to improve our [cultures] quickly–today, if not sooner. But the truth is, [culture] grows slowly. You would not criticize a seedling because it was not yet a tall oak tree; nor should you get upset because your [school culture] is in the growth stage. Instead, build it with daily deep practice.

To do this, it helps to “think like a gardener and work like a carpenter.” … Think patiently, without judgment. Work steadily, strategically, knowing that each piece connects to a larger whole.

Gardeners tend patches of ground to turn them into places of flourishing, whereas carpenters take raw materials — wood and nails and screws — and turn them into chairs or houses. There is a lot that a gardener can do to turn a poor garden into a good one, but he certainly doesn't have the level of control that a carpenter does.

Cultures, I'm sure, are more like gardens than they are like houses. The word's etymology, after all, goes back to the Latin word colere, which means to tend or cultivate. Sometimes, despite the gardener's best plans, the weather doesn't behave or the seeds are bad. As we seek to build great school cultures, it's smart, I think, to reflect on our humble role in the task — on how no one person in school can make a culture.

And yet — and yet! — I think that Coyle is right. With the gardener's humility in view, we must attack the work of school culture-making with the surety of a skilled carpenter. We can adapt our hiring practices, looking less for great resumes and more for humble-bold, “Level 5” kinds of people. We can think harder about why we meet and whether we're arguing enough during those meetings. And we can strive for those three skills — because they are learnable, improvable capacities — that Coyle unpacks in The Culture Code: belonging, trust, and purpose.

Here's to making better school cultures, for our sakes and for the sakes of our students. Cheers.


*I've got more to share about making better school cultures, so if you've enjoyed this little mini-series, take heart! However, it's got to end and for selfish reasons: I have a keynote in Idaho this month for a conference on writing, and I need to get mentally stretched out for it! Next stop: better, saner approaches to teaching student writers.

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2 Responses to How to Improve School Cultures, Part 6: Think Like a Gardener, Work Like a Carpenter

  1. jnolds April 21, 2018 at 1:06 pm #

    I appreciate the metaphors that you use here, and this links back well to your focus of “simple in-house PD.” I think it resonates with a classic book about economics and people: “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” I wonder if other forms of PD, reform, and leaderships of seem more like garden parties, factory farming, or pre-fab housing approaches…

  2. CMO April 22, 2018 at 1:12 pm #

    Enjoyed the post Dave. School culture is indeed a challenging thing to measure or pin down, and it seems to transform month by month; I think by modelling a strong, open spirit of learning as leaders we can keep the environment moving in a direction that promotes long-term success. Energized for the week. Thanks for your reflections.

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