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How to Improve School Cultures, Part 1: Coyle’s Three Skills

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Lately, my professional reading keeps bumping into the themes of school culture and leadership. At first, it can seem like school culture is far removed from the work of classroom teachers like me. After all, I don't lead PLC or staff meetings, and I'm not giving speeches or writing emails to the district. I also don't have plans to start doing those kinds of things. I teach, I lead PD for teachers, and I write things. Why, then, attend to reading about school culture and leadership?

The simple answer is that school culture affects long-term flourishing outcomes — for kids, for staffs, for whole communities. When school culture or leadership is poor, long-term flourishing is under-realized. When it's good, we start to really glimpse what's possible in and through the work of a school.

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Dan Coyle* describes how strong culture creates the conditions in which 2 + 2 = 10. What he means is that in a school or a classroom or a rock band with a good culture, work done by the group adds up to something much greater than the work all of the groups' individuals could have done had they worked separately. Bad cultures, of course, are the ones where 2 + 2 = 2 — when we get together, we produce less than we could if we just stayed apart.

It's true that leaders have out-sized effects on making (or breaking) school cultures. So, if you're a school leader, take special note here. And yet, every teacher in a building, just like every student in a classroom, can either help or hinder the things that make cultures shift from good to great. We all participate in culture-making. And of course, each teacher has her own domain in which she has an outsized effect on culture-making: the classroom.

So, enough preamble. What makes school cultures great?

Coyle contends that great cultures happen, whether in SEAL teams or fine dining restaurant staffs or inner-city schools, when leaders and group members possess three “skills”:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Mutual vulnerability
  3. Shared purpose

It's weird to call these skills, but I think Coyle is right. Shared purpose is a verb — leaders and teachers create shared purpose constantly. You don't “one and done” mutual vulnerability or psychological safety. These are things leaders and teachers need to be great at.

I'm going to examine Coyle's skills, and other things I've been learning about school culture, in posts to come. For today, let's just establish how to demonstrate the “anti-” versions of these skills.

Psychological Safety

School leaders and teachers undermine safety when they give the impression that you're always being evaluated, or when they don't give a clear idea of who's in charge, or when they create division throughout the group — this part of the group is good, this part of the group is bad. It's easy to unintentionally undermine safety — say, for example, by repeatedly praising a select few teachers rather than finding good things in everyone's room. To build safety, great leaders and teachers work to “generate bonds of belonging and identity” (from Coyle's Culture Code).

Mutual Vulnerability

School leaders and teachers undermine vulnerability when they never share their weaknesses and failures, when they act like they've always got it together, when they blame others for problems facing the group. To build vulnerability, great leaders and teachers are quick to take ownership of problems, and they welcome and grow from critical feedback. The goal in great groups is to create “habits of mutual risk” where productive cooperation is fueled by trust.

Shared Purpose

And finally, school leaders and teachers undermine purpose when they have no clear and enduring messages, constantly shift to the next new thing, and fail to create coherence for those under their care. To build purpose, great leaders and teachers constantly call to mind the answers to core questions, like “What are we all about?”, “What's our story?”, and “What are the key moves we use to get ourselves to where we're going?” In Culture Code, Coyle obsesses on how great group leaders, whether they lead basketball teams or comedy troupes, are great at keeping key narratives front and center for their people.

If you've got a school leader who you think might appreciate this article, send it along. Otherwise, just look at Coyle's three skills and ask, “How am I bringing these to bear on my work? How can I get a little bit better at them?” We all need to do this because at this blog our shared purpose/true north/Mt. Everest is long-term flourishing. Great school cultures makes getting there both easier and more effective.

*Note from Dave: If you've ever nerded out on books about talent acquisition, you've probably encountered Dan Coyle. His book The Talent Code** does for talent acquisition what Paul Tough's How Children Succeed did for character strengths. The book is a well-researched, discipline-spanning treatment of the core principles used by talent hotbeds around the world. And then, in The Little Book of Talent, Coyle reduced Talent Code into a super-practical set of 52 key ideas. (Coyle's Little Book is at the top of the list of books I want to give my kids when they get older. It's really cool.)

**Note from Dave, Part 2: I support my reading habit with Amazon affiliate links, meaning that I get a small amount added to an Amazon gift card every time someone heads to Amazon through my site and makes a purchase. Don't worry — I won't start recommending vacuum cleaners and big screen TVs — just books that I reference in my posts. I just wanted to let you know. Thanks for reading.

3 Responses to How to Improve School Cultures, Part 1: Coyle’s Three Skills

  1. Sue Spahr March 31, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    Love your thinking, Dave. Thank you for sharing! How true these key skills are to a team culture!

    • davestuartjr March 31, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

      Sue, thank you. I hope this helps all courageous leaders as they seek to build or re-build the right kind of school cultures.

  2. Laura Spencer (@LSpencerEdD) April 2, 2018 at 5:52 pm #

    I thought Coyle’s book was spot on… and like you, I applied it to the culture within educational circles. His vulnerability before trust really resonated: how often do we show students our mistakes? We want them to be vulnerable with us so we can teach them, but we don’t set up the conditions to encourage it… anyway, this is my blog post that was inspired by Coyle: https://laurakspencer.com/?p=517

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