This quick look at our approach to school culture is part of a periodic series of Partnership Posts this summer in which we will discuss different aspects of how our team frames the work we do. Our hope is to renew our own intentionality and to generate conversations that could keep school managers like us innovating in diverse ways.
In an essay this winter, Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee discussed how both curriculum choices and the “steady flow of habit formation”–from how to stand in the hall to norms for working in groups–convey the values and beliefs of a school to its students. All schools convey beliefs through these practices; faith-based schools are often just more explicit about what those beliefs are. Because Catholic schools are called to provide an excellent education and form young people to live in accordance with life-sustaining beliefs, our school cultures intentionally, vibrantly, and continually form students to live those beliefs. Indeed, one of the great joys of working in a school is to influence the creation of a school-wide culture that enables individuals and groups to thrive.
Partnership Schools’ Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis has been leading our efforts to refine a vision of strong Catholic school culture for our schools and to map out an approach for school leaders to align daily life in their schools with that vision. As a network team, setting a clear vision for schools and supporting leaders to pursue it–rather than laying out a long handbook of tactics–is the essence of our model for culture.
Christian’s thinking around how leaders build strong cultures has shaped many schools beyond our network, through his previous work directing the University of Notre Dame’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. So this brief introduction owes its existence to his long years of work on Catholic school culture.
Organizational culture is often described as “the way we do things around here.” Catholic activist Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, encourages us to go a step further and interrogate why we do the things we do around here when she says, “I watch what I do to see what I believe.” Sister Helen suggests our actions are rooted in our convictions.
When our actions are consistent with our convictions, we have integrity. So when all the practices, policies, procedures and communications in a school building are in alignment with a focused set of root beliefs, we can say our school community has integrity–and teachers and students experience that integrity as strong school culture.
As Catholic school educators, it is our vocation to nurture students so that they will be people whose actions reflect their beliefs. By deliberately aligning what we call the “culture carriers” of our schools to the root beliefs, shared purpose, and core values of the community, students who learn with us will develop habits of virtue that reflect those beliefs, values, and purpose.
Simply put: Our goal for student formation and school culture is that, by graduation, you could watch our students’ actions and know what they believe.
We first work with leaders and teachers to articulate the clear, compelling set of beliefs unique to each school community that are shared by that community and can be witnessed by all. The school team then translates belief into purpose–describing the mission, or unifying goal, motivated by their root beliefs. In Partnership Schools, this purpose is aligned to the core values of the network—integrity, humility, hard work, and service—in order to translate the schools’ beliefs into actions. We then focus on communicating the beliefs and values to the community through culture carriers–which include operating norms, teaching and learning norms, stories and communications, and physical spaces and artifacts.
Root beliefs are statements of conviction that express truths about the world. “Root” beliefs differ from “beliefs” in that they are essential to the life and identity of the school, shared by all members of the school community, and communicated broadly. They are important enough that policies, procedures, and routines are informed by them. Decisions should be made with them in mind, and they drive the school’s desired outcomes. Examples of Partnership Schools’ root beliefs include:
- We believe that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.
- We believe that we are made for each other.
- We believe that we are always learning.
The shared purpose of a school community is the unified goal that connects all the relationships in the school and motivates everyone’s decisions and activities. While all schools share the broad goal of educating children, an individual school can articulate its purpose in a unique way depending on its root beliefs, community context, unique history, and cultural identity. Some schools might emphasize as their goal a desire to be a place where children learn to become productive workers, while others might seek to educate deeply in civics to form future leaders for democracy. When its purpose is explicitly articulated as the product of the community’s shared root beliefs, the goal can be a powerful motivating force for action.
The core values of a school community translate conceptual beliefs into categories of actions that make its root beliefs known. For example, the root belief “We are made in the image and likeness of God” becomes known through our humility, which we enact by “Putting God and others first.” The Partnership Schools’ core values are integrity (doing the right thing), humility (putting God and others first), hard work (persisting), and service (helping others in our communities). Teachers are encouraged to translate the concepts into concrete activities that we do on a daily basis to live out our abstract root beliefs. Repeated practice of these belief-aligned actions, over time, will help all form habits of virtue.
Operating norms: Operating norms can facilitate the passing-in of papers, the transition of students from one classroom to another, or the method of communication between parents and teachers. As we head back to school in the midst of global pandemic, operating norms to ensure health and safety are more important than ever. When operating norms are incidental, they do not transmit school culture; they merely serve to expedite the operations of the school day. Policies are enforced because “the handbook says.”
But when we choose programs or adopt procedures because they align with beliefs and purpose, they can be powerful carriers of culture. Teachers who lead hallway transitions that are rehearsed, calm, and quick in an effort to maximize instructional minutes let students know, during every passing period, what we believe around here about the value of time—which reflects our belief in the Incarnation, and our belief that we are always learning. When we frame norms like wearing masks or keeping social distance in beliefs like “we are made for each other,” our Trinitarian belief in community is reinforced and deepened.
Teaching and learning norms: Teaching and learning norms include what is taught and how it is learned. Like operating norms, teaching and learning norms include a wide range of programs, policies, and procedures, and all can be powerfully aligned to root beliefs and core values and used to advance the school community’s shared purpose.
Stories and communication: In many ways, the role of the school leader is to imagine a better future for the school community, and then bring that vision to life, in part by telling stories and communicating with families, students, and community stakeholders about the school in ways that integrate root beliefs and core values. Beliefs and values can be transmitted in nearly every communication, such as weekly newsletters that include stories of community members who exemplify the beliefs or values, prayer at faculty meetings that develops a deeper sense of how the beliefs and values are grounded in the teachings of the Church, and more.
Physical space and artifacts: The “look and feel” of a school may seem like a superficial way to judge a school’s quality, but it is how many visitors will evaluate school culture. Whether intentional or incidental, everything hanging on a wall in a school carries a message, and every physical space can be considered an opportunity to transmit beliefs and values to the children who will pass that spot or stare at that wall for 180 days.
Students and teachers who share beliefs and a common purpose also design banners, adopt slogans, and rally around mascots and symbols that serve as reminders of their shared identity and belief. These artifacts are not just products of culture; their constant presence reinforces and shapes culture. So artifacts like school logos, mascots, and statuary can and should be selected, designed, and incorporated into ritual to transmit beliefs powerfully.
The work to discern root beliefs and shared purpose, and to align culture carriers with those north stars, requires the buy-in of a whole community in an ongoing process. When children engage in a set of actions anchored in shared root beliefs and core values that are in turn grounded in the faith for 180 days each year from kindergarten through eighth grade, they can develop habits of mind and body that will become virtues for life.
In the Partnership Schools families depend on us not just to transmit knowledge and skills critical for academic formation, but also to form souls. Because we focus on forming intentional connections between specific, daily activities and abstract, eternal beliefs and values, our students do not receive just a “values-based education.” Instead, they are formed to live out the Gospel and to flourish in concrete, comprehensible, and age-appropriate ways from the first days of the earliest grades through early adolescence, and thus are prepared to be citizens and leaders in this life and saints in the next.