IT, Brutus!

The relationship between a very competent and savvy IT Manager and the Head slowly begins to deteriorate. Increasingly, the individual criticizes the Head behind her back and engages faculty and staff in a negative dialogue about her, primarily via e mail.

The IT Manager approaches the Chair of the Education Committee of the Board about the fact that a school climate or at least a faculty climate survey might be a good idea and that he has the necessary skills to devise such a tool. The IT Manager does not share this idea with the Head beforehand, and the Board member agrees to it without consulting either the Board Chair or the Head. This particular Board member has a bad habit of meddling in the daily life of the School and of crossing boundaries of authority and channels of communication. This Consultant has warned about the pitfalls of having an Education Subcommittee of the board: it has a tendency to interfere in operational issues.

The Head then sees a request of the Board member to approve a survey format and its content which includes questions about her own performance. The Head and the Board Chair are furious but because the Head just terminated another senior staff member, the timing is poor for her to take on this individual.

At some point, the Head and Board Chair begin to suspect that their confidential communications to one another, to other Board members and to the School Attorney are being discussed internally. Staff members seem to know their next move as well as their reaction to the proposed survey. The faculty is now pressing for the staff survey to be completed, but the Chair aborts the effort because it is nearing the end of the year and the survey seems like an attempt by the IT individual to widen his sphere of influence.

At this point, the Chair and the Head become more suspicious and hire a technology forensic auditor who finds internet security breaches and inappropriate control tools in the hands of the IT manager who also operated these from his home. By this time, the IT Manager along with other faculty whom he has recruited are engaging in an active internal e mail campaign to have the head removed for “poor performance”

The beleaguered Head submits her resignation effective at the end of the following school year after a long and successful career. The IT person is terminated.

What is clear from this unfortunate incident is that the School had entrusted the IT Manager with broad and unchecked power and authority over the entire website and all e-mail communications of employees and even parents. A number of e-mails complaining to the Board about the Head came from parents’ e-mail accounts, and the parents later indicated that they never sent any such e-mails.

Lessons learned here: never put so much power in the hands of one IT person (or other single staff member); vet your IT personnel, especially the ones at the top, very carefully for their professional integrity, and willingness to follow appropriate protocols; and periodically have a forensic audit undertaken by an outside technology firm to assess the defenses , not only against potential external internet attacks , but also against internal misuse as well. Finally and maybe most importantly, always ensure that healthy board governance is in place so board members do not interact inappropriately with members of staff, or engage inappropriately in the operations of the school, no matter what their position.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

School Cultures: An Interesting Model And Then Some

Seldom am I able to undertake strategic planning, faculty compensation/evaluation, school climate and board governance assignments all in the same school and where these tasks fit seamlessly together. However, I was able to do that recently with a new client school and I came away with a renewed sense of the power of the mission to make a difference in the life of a school, offsetting my skepticism of so many schools whose mission statements sound very familiar. Many schools deliver on their mission statements fairly inconsistently.

What made for the powerful mission integrity of this one School?

First, it is a faith based school where the core philosophy runs deep. But even many faith based schools are weak in their mission consistency. So what else?

The President/Head is new in his position, willing to learn and is not arrogant. Constituents sense that he is observing carefully, listening intently and projects a tone that suggests openness to various points of view. However, he can also be firm when he needs to be.

But that does not account for it all.

The students are very unusual as a group. Their behavior and demeanor is poised, thoughtful, and reflective. Even while having fun, they have that fun in a polite and thoughtful manner. The students describe their own School as “nerdy and demanding”, but they are proud of the fact that the teachers “expect us to excel, and we do.” Indeed, the teaching corps is absolutely mission committed.

That is not to say there are not some quirky personalities within the faculty, or a few who distrust the administration or who are generally unhappy with some aspect of school life. But compared with the vast majority of schools, this faculty is mission focused and loyal. Even while wanting to earn more money, the teachers know that their school is paying them among the highest salaries and providing some of the most generous benefits for its type of school. So faculty culture, student culture and administrative culture are all consistently mission and faith based.

But what else?

The approximately twenty-five Board members are committed. Normally, when I conduct a workshop on faculty compensation, benefits and evaluation, I ask that at least three board members show up on that day and be willing to be a part of an ongoing dialogue with the faculty and administration over a three to six month period. That requires a lot of sacrifice from busy board volunteers. I do not fault boards for struggling to find the three to five individuals needed for this process. But in this particular School, on relatively short notice, TEN board members showed up and agreed to participate in the work going forward and all of these folks are busy professionals, some of them major CEO types.

But is there something else?

The School is over one hundred years old. Admissions is highly competitive and selective. The students are economically, socially and racially diverse and commute on the average an hour or more in any direction. Many ride the train AND take a bus. One third of the students are on financial aid.

Something else?

The parents interviewed assigned a “9” out of a possible “10” to the value compared to the cost of the overall experience of their children at the School. This level of current and past parental satisfaction translates into financial support. The school does raise almost $5 million a year in annual giving, mostly to support financial aid, and this for a day school.

Something else yet? Perhaps.

There are at least a few personalities who have been with the School almost 40 years whose loyalty, wisdom and generosity of spirit are obvious. In this school, I met one such person and this individual has a passion for the School that is palpable and has not waned during his long career there. However, he has the humility and service orientation reflected in the mission. He also has the power of persuasion for raising money and the ability to build networks of friends of the School that every school wants and needs. I felt it an honor to have met this man. He shakes your hand by holding yours in both of his. And it is not an empty gesture.

So the story is part mission consistency; part staff commitment and loyalty; part the hiring of good people over time; part the selection of the right mix of students over time; part is its history, location, reputation alumni loyalty, parental passion and pride: huge pride.

I would be honored to return to this School to undertake any assignment that would support its mission and goals. The strategic planning process that we did together will leave a lasting mark, I am sure, because all of the participants embraced it, committed to it and took the task of mapping out the School’s future so seriously.

I left this School with a bounce, with a sense of pride, with a sense of energy not sadness, except for the sadness of leaving a friend. I felt the goodness of the human condition, the kindness of most of the folks there, the basic niceness of the students. And I felt the mission. We could all learn from this model.


While we cannot all claim a 100 plus year history like the School in the above example, we can spend time and energy on more than just wordsmithing, and periodically undertaking a review of the mission statement. This exercise tends to coincide with the accreditation process in most schools rather than being a planned, thoughtful and important activity.

I have become a great proponent of dissecting that mission statement that is often on the wall of the board room (and other rooms) and is so long that no one reads it or remembers it. These mission statements are often platitudes, not concretely grounded in the school’s history or practice, nor even felt emotionally or powerfully enough for constituents to be able to recite the same key words from the mission.

I am a big believer in “tag Lines”, ones that truly capture what is true about a school; what provokes an emotional response and what differentiates it from the competition. Recently, I worked for a school in a gorgeous, panoramic mountain site in Europe. The School does an incredible job in its outdoor education, academic preparation, university placement, character development and in helping the students to build a lifelong network of friends who help each other open doors to career opportunities.

Yet, on the home page of this School’s website is a picture of a gym and an outdoor basketball court covered with snow. Where are the mountain views? Where are the pictures of and messages about the students mountaineering, skiing and demonstrating those unique qualities of character that the school espouses to develop and for which it has a proven track record? They are there, buried deep in the website, but not easily found.

A few years ago, this School had a successful capital campaign. The campaign theme was: “Reaching New Heights.” During the strategic planning process this struck me as the beginnings of a tag line that the School needs to display prominently on its home page. In the background, there should be pictures of students climbing those peaks and on those field trips that require strength of character and leadership skills. They should put those key themes of greatness UNDER that tag line. They certainly have the photos, the location, the history and the proof. “Reaching New Heights: In Academics, Character Development, Mountaineering and Leadership, and Developing Life Long Friendships.” There it is.

Recently at another client School, I was engaged in assisting the school in marketing. This is the most established School in this mid size city. The tag line is concise but does not capture powerfully the essence of the School. The School was formerly the only show of its kind in town but now there are good attractive options such as public magnet schools, charter schools, Christian schools and another younger independent school, all competing for the same students.

This client is committed to diversity and is known for a non sectarian program in a town with a strong evangelical population. The initial tone picked up in interviewing almost 100 parents was on the surface somewhat critical, but not about major issues. One might say (as an administrator did) that there is a “malaise” in the parent body which made parents less likely to speak about the school positively in the broader community. Perhaps because it is the most expensive school in town, they are reluctant to talk much about the school to friends, colleagues, neighbors and fellow church or synagogue attendees. And yet?

There was a consistent message coming through to this Consultant and a rare one. Math is the strongest area of the curriculum. The arts and sciences are a close second with English and writing following not far behind. Children are very happy overall, and the most consistent theme of all is that parents find that the School’s teachers are able to tailor a rigorous academic program to individual children. Parents articulated this distinguishing characteristic of the School with passion, emotion and loyalty SO there was an opportunity to be seized!

Passion DOES exist among that parent body. It is just latent. Parents are not the advocates whom they should be either on campus or in the broader community, and yet few ever leave the School. Why would they? How many schools do you know where teachers teach to the learning style of the students rather than expecting the student to adjust to the teaching style of the teacher? How many schools do you know where not one of the curriculum areas was criticized seriously and most were praised, AND where college counseling and university placement are given an average grade of 10 out of 10. Worldwide the most commonly criticized areas of schools by parents are poor college counseling/placement and weak math and science.

Given all these positives, the challenge was to recruit parents who could begin to build on this consistent message of positive things that parents consistently mentioned, ONCE they got a few of the smaller issues off their minds.

The tag line still needs to be replaced with one that reflects the academic excellence and customized, student-centered learning happening at this school. But now some 70 parents are being mobilized as parent admissions amb

assadors to tell the “good news” more coherently, more passionately and with a mission based focus. At another recent school where our Firm worked to help recruit almost 90 parent admissions ambassadors, one parent wrote, in part:

“Harnessing the brain power, enthusiasm, and experience of the School’s parents to sell a product we all believe in is a simple idea. And brilliant. With your insightful questions and rapid analysis you have quantified and confirmed what we know in our hearts. It is reassuring to learn that the qualities that brought us to this School when we were searching for a kindergarten program for our child have held up rather nicely a dozen years later… Until your arrival on campus, I was content to think of the School as one of the best kept secrets in education. But I’m persuaded by your presentation. It is important for the future of the school that we do a better job telling our story… I am by nature skeptical of hype, hoopla and public relations. So it is, to say the least, uncharacteristic of me to leave the training session proudly wearing my School Ambassador pin…And I don’t think the School should hire a publicist. I’m sure there are parents and administrators who would be more effective. If I can be helpful, great.”

When you have these kinds of parents; when you have a powerful mission that is active, living and breathing in a school culture; when you have a dynamic student body, or a passionate group of teachers and administrators, then you have a gift and a story worth telling.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Unhealthy School Climate: Common But Seldom Improved

In a recent exchange of e mails among school heads, there was much talk about, and not many congratulations for a Head who was taking over a School with a history of a troubled and unhealthy faculty culture.

This School is not in financial distress and its Board is reasonably stable. But its union’s defense of inappropriate teacher behavior and the consistent, anti-administrative tone of its faculty toward any Head’s attempt at assertive leadership lead to several interesting questions: Should anything be done to tackle this negative atmosphere? What can be done to make this School healthier? How aware are parents and students of the underlying anger in the culture and the impact upon them?

More heads find more negativity within their faculty cultures than they will admit. The effect may not be as damaging as in the School noted above, which is an extreme example, but an adversarial faculty culture is quite common. This can occur in even the most prominent, major boarding schools in the US to some of the smallest day schools and international schools. Most heads see tackling the “climate” issue as difficult, if not downright risky.

All heads in these situations ask themselves: how long would it take me to lead an effort that would turn around a negative school culture? New heads wonder if they should skirt the problem, attempt to stay removed from and above the visceral anger of some faculty subgroups, and hope that this feeling will not be aimed directly at them? If a head does attempt to tackle the issue, will he/she in all likelihood fail and jeopardize his/her job in the process (unless the head has amassed a great deal of political capital over the years with key constituents)? Furthermore, in some parts of the world, labor laws make it nearly impossible for management to remove a teacher who may perform in the classroom but whose demeanor outside of the classroom adversely affects faculty morale. Thus, many leaders may feel that one just has to wait for the angry teachers to retire and hope that by outlasting them, the situation will improve. Over the years this Consultant has witnessed that resigned conclusion many times.

This Consultant does not believe that either teachers or administrators bear the sole responsibility for this situation. The majority of teachers are passionate about their profession but are susceptible to the influence of those who openly and frequently voice hostility or resentment about the head or the administration overall.

Angry teacher cultures sadly tend to breed a new generation of more of the same. The more senior disgruntled cohort often recruits the younger, more na�ve and upbeat teachers into the culture of this anti administrative sentiment. It becomes self perpetuating.

Unfortunately, in some schools the anger in the faculty culture seeps down into the ranks of students and parents. They perceive it in the demeanor of teachers when they speak about their administration; or they hear it in the tone of faculty banter in the hallways or when teachers talk about upper level decisions in the presence of students. Sometimes, parents even leave the school if this behavior becomes extreme, but school leaders never know the real reason why they left.

I. Is This YOUR School?

It is not professionally appealing to admit that the school one leads has a very unhealthy, if not almost nasty, faculty culture. Yet this Consultant has witnessed it in hundreds of schools and heard about it worldwide in hundreds of others. These are not unsolvable problems. But they are complex, usually have a long “tail”, and usually involve a small coterie of very vocal teachers who carry on this adversarial tradition.

What leads to unhealthy faculty cultures?

The wrong or unhealthy mix of the faculty, i.e., the demographics: An unfortunate and unplanned set of hiring practices may have brought together individuals from the same backgrounds or with complaining personalities who form distinctive cliques that dominant the faculty lounge or other areas where teachers gather. Heads are only too aware of the body language of such teachers in school wide meetings: the folded arms and the rolling eyes are all too familiar.

“Demographics” could mean that there is not a healthy range of age, gender, career or family status, or overall balance in the faculty. Perhaps a cadre of like minded individuals in the same career group has decided it is unhappy and then conveys that attitude consistently. Even if working conditions and pay may be excellent, these cliques can dominate faculty cultures and demoralize even the most positive and energetic new teachers. Democracy, transparency and faculty “voice” become the key words for unhappy teachers who want more influence and power but ironically already have too much of it.

The hiring practices over the years: Hiring for credentials and experience alone can be very detrimental to the long term health of school cultures. School heads should be particularly vigilant about hiring for “attitude”. Heads or other senior administrators, however, tend not to pay much attention to hiring for attitude except perhaps in very good boarding schools where the hiring policies must include a careful analysis of the likely chemistry between students and teachers in a residential context and the willingness to go that extra mile.

Rarely, schools will subject top applicants to a psychological evaluation or battery of tests to assess not technical competence, but appropriate emotional “fit” with the school’s culture. This is mission appropriate hiring, but it seldom happens.

This Consultant has had many heads describe to him the new crop of positive teachers they have hired and then in interviewing them individually on site for a consulting assignment, the consultant finds that some carry baggage of deep seated mistrust of administration, even the one that just hired them. According to this Consultant’s experience, the most disenfranchised teachers typically will be found more often in the high school; more will be male; more will be mid career to senior teachers; and more will be in the history and English departments (and maybe science).

The turnover of administration and resulting power vacuums: The more often the head of school and division heads/principals depart, the more often power vacuums are created. Teachers fill those, rapidly. The head and the principals/division heads are thus left with less influence and authority, and it takes longer for new ones to establish themselves and even the smallest changes may be met with resistance. Teachers can interpret proposed changes to the status quo as a lack of attention to the “faculty voice”, which may have become inappropriately powerful because of faculty cynicism over leadership turnover and inconsistency.

Leadership turnover is particularly dangerous to school culture when it has occurred largely as a result of input from faculty factions. When boards misbehave and fire a head due to parent pressure prompted by teachers or direct teacher pressure, then the faculty is empowered. They may think: “Why can’t we do this to the next guy, if we succeeded in running the current one out of town?”

To be fair to teachers, when leadership turnover occurs, new leaders often undertake too many initiatives too quickly and in the international context where head tenure tends to be shorter, MUCH too quickly. Teachers actually may come to hope that the leadership will turn over again so that they do not have to undertake the new initiatives. And then when THOSE leaders leave, and the new ones come in with THEIR new plans and ideas, the teachers’ cynicism is reinforced. Teachers often feel then that their failure to embrace earlier changes was the correct, easier strategy.

Head turnover, often a function of board turnover, almost always creates these risky power vacuums. There is another common and unfortunate consequence of power vacuums: faculty turns instead to parents, building relationships with them that can be overly cozy and sometimes inappropriate.

Perceived unfairness: This represents everything from a teacher who may have been terminated or counseled out some years ago, to a disciplinary matter where the teachers feel that the head favored the parents or did not take a tough moral stand. Whatever the specifics, it resonates with teachers as an indication of an unfair administration that cannot be trusted.

The dismissal or departure of a teacher creates additional anxiety and suspicion in the culture. In the US, and in “right to work” states, where teachers can be dismissed more easily than in Europe, even one or two dismissals or contract non renewals in a year out of a teaching staff of 180 can result in frequent faculty conversation about job insecurity. Teachers want to know which colleagues are leaving and why, even though heads cannot offer a public explanation. Where the head is long term and beloved, the effect upon morale may be minimal, but where the head/director is newer and has much less political capital, every departure of a teacher can lead to gossip harmful to the culture.

Some years ago when interviewing teachers on an faculty compensation consulting assignment, fifteen teachers told this consultant that twelve years before the Board had cut salaries by 10% in a cost reduction move and that the teachers had never regained that lost ground. Later, the Head revealed that none of the fifteen teachers with whom this consultant had spoken had been there at that time! This was the proverbial “pebble in a barrel” circulating around that environment and undermining the leadership for years.

Of course, teachers do love their administrators as well. In many schools teachers will wax enthusiastic about a particular division head or a current or former school head. But sometimes that very sense of adoration of an administration only makes it more difficult for the succeeding or current one. Sometimes a head or team will “give away the store” in an effort to settle issues with a teacher’s union or other organized faculty group, thus preserving his or their reputation and position. However, the unfortunate successors are saddled with trying to roll back concessions that may be unsustainable in the long run.

Changing workload, schedules or curriculum: School cultures are resistant to change and teachers are not change agents. School leaders must manage change and transition carefully. While some teachers invite and explore every new curriculum initiative, the majority has settled into a comfortable pattern. Too much change reflects “fads” in the minds of teachers, and they are not necessarily wrong.

The presence of formal unions, informal faculty councils, or advisory committees whose leadership has a strong power base: Many teacher groups in Western Europe, for example, participate in unions, works councils and the like. In theory these organizations are meant to ensure proper consultation between management and teachers on a range of issues. But often over time the rights and flexibility of management become dramatically compromised as the demands of unhappy teachers predominate, ranging from more from days off, more stipends and release time to a say in the assignment of duties, etc.

In these situations, the tone of the school has become adversarial and management is hampered in its ability to effect meaningful and needed change. However, this does not have to be the case. There are examples where creative leaders have engaged these councils or unions in productive dialogue and built strong and trusting relationships with the leadership. This requires patience and time. If the head/director turnover is high, such relationships will almost never develop.

A faculty that has been spoiled over time: In some schools, the quality of the teaching environment has become so comfortable that no one leaves. Those few new teachers who do arrive are amazed at the quality of life they have in their new school but quickly become spoiled by low work load and high pay and find some reason to repeat the complaints that they hear. Such negative contagious behavior, left unchecked, can turn a wonderful work environment into an unappreciated or very underappreciated one.

I can think of only a few groups of teachers, out of 6,000 client schools, where some of the teachers did not tell me that they were overworked or underpaid or both.

Board member intrusion into faculty politics: It is easy for parent board members in particular to engage in personal conversations with teachers, especially those who teach their own children. This can lead to the creation of networks that bypass, and can become dangerous to the head. The board then may become overly connected and loyal to the faculty such that it second guesses every decision the head makes.

Parent elected boards that play to faculty issues and faculty politics: In those rare US cases, and far more likely in international schools, some parent elected boards may actually play to faculty sentiment or disgruntlement with management in order to be elected. Sometimes teachers are also allowed to vote in these AGM sessions and thus against the administration. However, there have also been cases where teachers supported heads at the AGM, so having teachers vote in these elections can work both ways.

II. Can These Cultures Be Improved?

What are the risks to attempting to change an unhealthy culture? And what are the risks of NOT attempting to do so? This Consultant believes that is it both courageous and necessary to consider seriously tackling unhealthy faculty cultures, especially if the head thinks and believes that he or she will remain as head five years or longer. Obviously, the longer a head stays, the more teachers he or she can recruit who share his/her general sense of mission and the more loyal the faculty members may become.

One solution to curing unhealthy faculty cultures has three steps: building a healthy longer serving board; ensuring longer head tenure; and as the head, choosing more and more teachers who are in tune with the same sense of mission and culture.

To that last point, heads really do need to keep a graph of their entire teaching staff. That graph should cover everything from national origin, family status, years of experience, subject taught, gender, grade level taught, and most desirable attitudes. The head should refer to that graph frequently to ensure that the next hire in the same division or department provides an appropriate balance so that no one group or personality dominates.

An alternative solution with more immediate impact is an intervention by a knowledgeable and sensitive consultant. This consultant should be able to help build bridges between teachers and administration through an honest dialogue that is largely removed from the use of polemics, AND where the “presumption of good intent” becomes the byword of the administrative council meetings and the conversation among teachers in the staff lounge. This is the work that Littleford & Associates does worldwide for schools and other organizations.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Improving Faculty Cultures: Touching The Heart And Soul Of Schools

An independent school unionized recently because the faculty was fearful of losing some cherished rights and benefits that new leadership had questioned. The benefits included teaching only three courses, coming and going with no requirement to check in or out in a day school setting, and having no required “extras” or extra curricular assignments. Yet in another school, teachers with six courses, teaching almost 100 students a day and with unpaid required coaching assignments conveyed a great sense of contentment, and confidence in the leadership of the school. What accounts for the differences? School culture.

School culture is a product of past history, successes and failures, faculty “lore” about real or perceived mistreatment at the hands of the board or administration, and of having little “voice” in decision making that affects them.

Throughout the world, Littleford & Associates works with schools to help support “moral” faculty cultures in healing old wounds and building new coalitions for positive change. The ultimate beneficiaries of an improvement in faculty morale are the children in our schools.

Many independent and international schools with outstanding, even “world class” reputations for excellence, can suffer from unhealthy and seriously dysfunctional faculty cultures. Some teachers in our schools are bitterly disappointed about the outcome of their careers and complain frequently about low salaries, high workload, poor administrative leadership, and too little time to teach effectively, perfect their craft and attend to their families.

In one school, the new head was asked to take on some tough tightening of the budget and to improve student boarding life. His decisions caused great consternation in the ranks of teachers who began to signal to students their serious unhappiness about the new administration. Over a period of three years, the head’s house on campus was vandalized several times by students feeling they were attacking the symbol of teacher discontent. Eventually the teachers crossed “boundaries” to alumni trustees and successfully ousted the head. The culture was poisoned for some time in that many teachers did not trust the administration, and the new administration had a long way to go to try to reestablish a professional relationship with the faculty.

Independent school faculty cultures are often ones where we speak of “collaboration” and “collegiality”. Yet in such small intimate settings, when one person offends another rather than talking about that perceived offense directly with the person who caused it, the offended party often talks to everyone else BUT the offending party. Body language, avoidance behavior, rumor, gossip and innuendo, and a range of other passive/aggressive behaviors show up in independent school cultures. A good time to observe these behaviors is when the head of school is speaking in an all school faculty meeting.

Many teachers whom this consultant has interviewed in such cultures will respond that faculty anger or disaffection does not affect the students. Yet this statement seems naïve.

It takes only five seriously unhappy teachers in a faculty of fifty to undermine a positive culture. Lower school cultures tend to be more upbeat than those of middle schools and upper schools. Middle school faculty cultures are usually more positive than those of upper schools. This may be related to the focus of elementary teachers on process and collaboration versus the more historic departmentalized focus of secondary school teachers on content, subject matter and preparation for the rigors of testing and entrance to college. While an unhappy faculty can be sex blind, more of the disaffected teachers seem to be mid career males in upper schools, and sometimes more specifically, those with a humanities training in the history and English departments and sometimes in the science department. Perhaps this is due in part to closed avenues for promotion for many teachers in mid career and the analytical training and questioning nature of teachers in these departments.

Teachers are NOT to blame for all this. Management IS. Why? Independent school managers are not oblivious to the extent of faculty unhappiness in some schools and often avoid addressing it. It is easier and less confrontational to “lay low” with an angry faculty culture than to take the risks associated with trying to improve it. In addition, heads are never sure if it is even possible to make such cultures more positive, or if tackling the issue is worth the risk.

Teachers who spread negative contagious behavior, who engage consistently in sarcastic putdowns of students and fellow teachers, attract attention. That reinforces their behavior. This occurs even though such remarks are basically intended to hurt and may reflect a deep insecurity on the part of those using these tactics. Why do other teachers not confront such behavior?

In interviewing over 35,000 teachers personally and confidentially in the past 20 years, this consultant has found that many want the administration to point up the immorality of such behavior and the damage done by those who practice it. The lack of leadership by the administration makes teachers loath to stand up and stand out to object to anti administration, anti colleague language and political infighting.

The idea of “presuming good intent” is a strong formula for urging teachers and administrators to go to the source of their irritation and rather than talking to everyone else but the apparently offending party.

On the other side of the ledger a recent visit to an independent school of 1500 students led this consultant to a culture of high praise for the head and of teachers for each other as colleagues. In interviewing over 30 teachers in this school, not one gave the head lower than the highest marks for performance and empathy, for listening and leading. However, in listening over four days, I learned that this upbeat culture was the result not only of a thoughtful, deliberate and warm head of school whose style was both “soft” and “firm.” It also resulted from the legacy and modeling of a senior member of the faculty who was in the high school English department. This man was gentle, kind, loyal and had been with the school 30 years. Graduates often came back to reconnect with him. Rather than basking in his own ego, he spoke with admiration of his colleagues and their work and of the environment that the Head of school had provided for him and his fellow teachers.

He was low key, soft spoken, and self effacing. I came away from this interview feeling this man was a core reason for the affirming nature of the entire faculty culture as EVERY teacher in the interview process, when asked what makes a great teacher at this school, referred to this gentleman by name or description.

At the faculty workshop later in the week, I concluded with a statement about the rarity of confluence of forces in this school. A positive faculty culture seemed to a great extent to be a reflection of a warm yet firm head combined with a teacher who seemed to be the role model in his quality of teaching, character, counseling and the genuine humility of his demeanor and mode of speaking. This teacher was sitting in the front row. He seemed truly not to know to whom I was referring until I mentioned his name.

The faculty stood up as one and gave him a prolonged standing ovation. He sat there with his eyes brimming with tears. Again, this amazing school culture was found in a large school. The workload was not light and was not an issue. It was the warmth of the professional attitude of teachers toward administration and vice versa that set the high morale and resulted in a positive faculty culture.

At another recent client school, faculty culture has turned negative after the arrival of a new head who was charged with implementing an aggressive strategic plan. The school is a fine one with a great history. Teachers have been comfortable in a culture that had drifted from parent and board expectations. A more results oriented board wanted some tangible measures by which to assess outcomes and assure parents of quality. The prior head may not have been comfortable with these new goals and the tactics to achieve them and left. The new head entered with experience but a totally different leadership style. He had insufficient time to develop political capital or a full understanding of the School’s history and culture before sending out signals about changing it.

The tension within the faculty has grown and the rumblings of discontent have been evident. The head took the encouraging and courageous step of asking for outside assistance with managing change within this setting and the board did as well with an eye to reviewing their own board governance practices, which are in fact, quite strong.

At a meeting at the end of the week following some 20 interviews of mainly teachers but a few administrators and board members, those interviewed met for a workshop and feedback session. There were 18 suggested items on which the head and his management team might work, and 25 on which the faculty individually and collectively might focus. At end the end of the meeting the head stood up to acknowledge the comments, even the criticism, and conveyed the vulnerability and sense of isolation that all heads can feel while acknowledging a genuine sense of commitment to do the right thing and meet the school’s needs. His sincerity was palpable.

At that moment, the most senior and respected member of the faculty stood up. He turned to look at his peers and said: “I admit that I have been guilty of saying things negative and critical and engaging in gossip and spreading rumors. This is wrong and I will not do this any longer. I pledge my support to help this school heal as I have a deep love and commitment to this place.” There was total silence followed by a burst of sustained applause. A pregnant moment: an opportunity had presented itself.

Another client and a wonderful and open minded head of school recently wrote me:

“When I reflect on all the internal and external evaluations and the accreditation visits and the emphasis schools place on professional development, none of these have touched the heart and soul of our school in such a significant and positive way… this work is invaluable and can increase the head’s longevity and effectiveness. If a school is interested in:

  • successful transition for a new head
  • developing a culture of appreciation
  • improving faculty morale
  • and/or creating a professional learning community
  • Then I highly recommend this process.”

This school is a day school where a culture of negativity had crept into daily conversation, not only about the school or head but when teachers were talking about each other.

The head further wrote:

“When you provided a summary to twenty three participants, everyone was shocked to see the staff room gossip anonymously recorded on the flipcharts. You revealed negative behavior, but more importantly identified a process for school improvement and ignited a passion for positive change in all our human relationships.”

Following this workshop, I asked each teacher to write down confidentially a comment or two of what each thought he or she could contribute to a more positive faculty culture. Among the comments made anonymously, the most frequent one was along these lines: “I now know what I need to do personally to make this a better place for me and others who work and learn here. I will try to change my behavior.”

More important than the work of this consultant, was the work of the head in his follow up activities which have been prodigious and immediate.

The head asked the workshop task force to work together first and then to report back to the entire faculty and board. He assigned individual workshop attendees specific roles. The workshop group first met to outline their own strategies and goals and to explain the changes they had experienced through the interviews and workshop. Their next step was to attempt to engage the entire faculty in the dialogue and to do so with an open mind.

This process has not been easy. The faculty members have been extraordinarily professional. A few teachers saw clearly how others might characterize their unhealthy and “put down” behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious. Several of these teachers deserve credit for being introspective and trying to change their own core behavior patterns. Even if one or two individuals may not change, there has already been a “lightening up” and a softening of negative responses.

Such changes do not occur overnight. Moving away from a school climate where unhappy voices dominate and recruiting new, positive teachers into that culture takes at least three years. But the school described here has begun this process with courage and integrity and the support of the faculty and board. The jury is yet out but the initial signals are very positive, even uplifting.

Our firm has worked with a number of schools world wide that have taken on this kind of pro active mode to build healthier school cultures that ultimately benefit all who work and learn in these settings. However, the school described above is remarkable in the creativity and speed with which this head, this board and this faculty have responded.

This head’s initiative and leadership inspired the workshop and has motivated the follow up process. Teachers and other staff have also taken up the challenge and have begun to run with it enthusiastically and courageously. This can happen anywhere where the leadership is willing to examine an unhealthy faculty culture and turn it around. A positive and healthy faculty and school culture does touch the heart and soul of a school and supports its mission.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Understanding Faculty And School Cultures

Not long ago, I was invited to conduct a workshop on teacher evaluation. The first to enter the room was an experienced teacher. He sat in the last row, and did not pick up a name tag. I walked over to meet him, hand outstretched, and introduced myself. “I see that you do not have a name tag”, I said. His response was “I know my own name.” I said, “Yes, but I do not.” His reply: “That’s your problem, isn’t it?”

I had never met this gentleman before. Clearly, he was angry and projecting his anger onto me.

  1. The Profile of a Teacher: Caregivers not Risk Takers

    Teachers tend to resist change, and hold administrations responsible for the discomfort that accompanies change. The gentleman described above was upset about the arrival of a new head who had spoken of a desire to create a process of teacher evaluation at a school where none had existed in anyone’s recent memory. The teacher was taking out his anger at the head, and his fear about change, on the consultant.

    Teachers may not confront quickly or directly the source of their irritation or anger. That source may be an individual or a policy. Instead, that anger and fear may be sublimated and will come out at a later time in other forms. Those forms take many guises. Teachers may tell everyone else about the reason that they are upset, but they may not tell the person, often an administrator, who made them feel that way.

    In the past 15 years, I have interviewed over 20,000 teachers confidentially on the subject of teacher compensation. Over 80% of them indicated they were not “risk takers” but care givers. This was reflected in that most did not know their exact salary or even an approximate number for the value of their retirement asset. They wanted predictability in their future earning power so they would not have to worry about money every year.

    Often what lies beneath or provokes a compensation discussion are teachers’ feelings of unhappiness about their work environment or climate.

  2. Hiring Faculty: Credentials and Experience Are Not the Only Criteria

    In this consultant’s experience, heads must hire teachers carefully to ensure a political, demographic balance of personal styles, behaviors, career level and attitude. Several years ago, I was retained by a board chair whose head was on sabbatical.

    The Board Chair had learned that a representative of the state teachers’ association had been invited on campus to speak to the teachers, in a move to “organize” a union. The Chair asked me to determine why such an invitation was issued and to do so before any formal actions or petitions were undertaken.

    In interviewing a cross section of this faculty, several patterns were evident:

    1. Many of the teachers were married to other teachers on campus, and the anger of one spouse affected and spurred on the anger of the other. Most all lived on campus and that anger festered nightly in dining room conversation.
    2. Most of the angriest teachers were mid career, male, history and English teachers.
    3. These men were unhappy at not having had promotional opportunities into management. They were also dissatisfied, and feeling inadequate, some about having selected a teaching career in the first place. They had lost their earlier youthful zeal due to the low status and low pay realized by mid career teachers.
    4. The teachers felt that they were “stuck” with few, if any, options in their current positions.

    All of these forces combined to galvanize these men into an angry leadership group. The head’s one semester sabbatical created a power vacuum into which this group quickly moved. This pattern, though absent an invitation to organize a union, is common in independent schools, and any disaffected faction of teachers can fall into a similar pattern of behavior.

    Heads need to be careful that in hiring new teachers, the focus not be primarily on teaching credentials, or teaching experience. Rather, the focus should be on the following: the teacher’s attitude; willingness to learn and grow; the ability to hear criticism as well as praise; and the “mix” of the department into which this new teacher is being hired. The addition should add greater, not less, emotional “health” to the department. Orienting, guiding, counseling and mentoring teachers who are new to teaching and new to the school are critical to a healthy faculty culture.

  3. The Correlation Between Teacher Attitudes and School Cultures

    School cultures are determined mainly by teachers and their attitudes. In working with over 1200 international and US independent schools in the past 15 years, it is obvious to me that a great many have teaching and faculty cultures that are not “well” in that there is a pervasive, underlying cynicism or criticism in the culture.

    Recently, in one well known and highly respected girls’ school, a new teacher bounced into the faculty room and expressed satisfaction at having chosen this school. One of the older teachers in the room responded, “Well, stay here long enough, and you will come to dislike the place like the rest of us.”

    She viewed her choices as the following: join the “negative contagious” behavior, in which she did not believe; be the “Polyanna”, positive voice about the head and school, a position for which she felt she lacked sufficient stamina and experience; or withdraw from faculty contact and operate independently, a position she felt would deny her the collegiality she wanted and needed. The teacher later told me she would not be returning the following year.

    School heads spend a huge amount of time interviewing teachers, checking resumes, and calling references. Seldom do they really try to understand the individual personality and background of the potential recruit and how that teacher’s personal style, background and experiences will intersect with, affect and be affected by the particular department or division of the school in which they will work.

    Recently I interviewed a cross section of teachers on the topic of teacher culture, compensation and evaluation. This was a large school with more than one campus, where one might expect to find disaffection, fear of change and a faculty room where criticism of the “remote” administration and problems about “communication” might be the daily bread of conversation. It was not.

    In this particular school, the head was outstanding in terms of earning faculty respect and trust. The size of the School did not diminish the respect for the head. There seemed to be NO poisonous contagious behavior. Teachers spoke of an administration that cared about them, pushed them, challenged them, but trusted them and helped them to grow into better teachers.

    There was an openness to change, not a fear of it, among the teachers. The circumstances of this school included a head who had risen from within the ranks and had been head for some years now. However, those factors alone could not account for the “intimacy” and trust of the relationship. The head was praised for good listening skills, warmth, openness and a staunch ability to speak up for the needs of the faculty. The head articulated these needs effectively to the board. The head stressed the need for everyone to be a part of a “community of learners.”

    This same sense of trust and respect can be found in many of our client schools, with a similar affection for the heads and a similar sense of “can do” optimism and openness among the faculty. What distinguishes all of these schools is that the heads are “analytical” in their style. They are predictable and “even.” These qualities create within the culture of sense of comfort, collegiality, and trust.

  4. How Do Healthy Faculty and School Cultures Develop?

    Healthy faculty (and thus “school”) cultures seem to develop under these circumstances:

    1. The school has a recent history and culture of “open” communication, honest dialogue and a willingness on the part of teachers to take up a grievance or concern forthrightly with one or more administrative leaders.
    2. There is a sense that teachers are valued in the School.
    3. The teachers themselves seem to reflect less “anger” of a personal or professional nature.
    4. A focus on what is genuinely good for children dominates the conversation.
    5. Heads at these schools know the teachers and their families and support them personally and professionally whenever needed and whenever possible.
    6. Heads at these schools are strong leaders, with high expectations. Teachers come to see these higher standards as a sign of pride and community accomplishment.
    7. The heads are available to talk, to listen and to think through a response rather than to respond too quickly.
    8. Healthy school cultures are ones where those who do not belong, or who undercut and damage the culture, are either confronted and change, OR they are counseled out or not rehired. This is the “tough” face to the head who normally expresses the “soft” side.
    9. Healthy school cultures are ones where the head is not regarded as a politician but, in reality, is a very adept one.

    Healthy school cultures emanate from healthy faculty cultures and these in turn emanate from leadership practices and styles.

John Littleford, Senior Partner

Littleford & Associates

John Littleford
Senior Partner

"Managing School Climate-And Not Letting It Manage You!"

The key ingredient in developing and maintaining a healthy school climate is faculty morale. While board, parent and student morale are very important, they tend to flow, negatively or positively, from faculty morale.

Boards often provide strong directives to the head. If always followed, these directives can sometimes lead to a significant drop in faculty morale. When boards have just finished a search process for a new head, they tend to lay out their expectations for the head very clearly. And those expectations, if acted upon too quickly, can lead to tension within the school and radically unhealthy changes in school climate.

The issues that most dramatically affect faculty climate and morale are:

  1. THE FREQUENCY, NATURE AND SUBJECTS OF PROPOSED OR ACTUAL CHANGE.The areas of change that pose the greatest risks are changes in leadership, compensation structures or levels, work load changes, creating or changing the teacher evaluation process, changes in curriculum or schedules, and changes in the school’s financial health that may threaten the teachers’ sense of the school’s, and therefore their own, financial security.

    A change in heads causes great anxiety to teachers. No matter how much they may have been involved in the search process, they are uneasy about change at the top. During a new head’s first or second year, the old adage about laying low and reading the terrain is crucial. But in some schools, heads may not have the luxury of waiting long to address important issues of hiring, enrollment growth etc. Board members, who may be short term themselves, want to see changes made immediately to benefit their own children.

    Changes in compensation structure, or the initiation of a new evaluation process, is a demand frequently placed on new heads as well as current ones. These are exceptionally risky areas. And yet they form the core elements of school’s ability to attract, hold and assess good people. They also help keep the school accountable. But moving cautiously is important here.

    The Board will press on the one hand for more rapid movement, especially in exploring merit pay concepts. The faculty will usually press for delay and more process. Teachers will generally oppose moves in the direction of merit pay. However this opposition is softening among many faculties. The reason for this attitude change is because most teachers now realize that significant future salary increases will not be approved by boards unless there is major change in the salary administration and design process.

    Work load changes or any change in working conditions, however small and inconsequential they may seem to the head, often are more important than issues the head and the board see as the major ones.

    Faculty climate and resistance to change can be improved by the head who really does “manage by walking around”.

    Heads who are always off campus, always delegate faculty liaison to others, or who are almost invisible in the faculty room and hallways risk the loss of respect and “granted power.” They may still hold “positional power”, but that alone will not provide the buffer zones needed by leadership in times of crisis.

  2. LEADERSHIP/FOLLOWER ISSUES:These are the natural tensions that arise from attempting to lead teachers who often have a strong sense of independence and a natural resistance to and suspicion of strong authority. An important element here is the degree to which a head does or does not delegate authority wisely. Too much authority delegated in the wrong way to the wrong people in the wrong areas can be very dangerous. Not delegating appropriate authority when and where it is needed is equally dangerous, although the damage takes longer to appear.

    One head recently found himself cornered in an increasingly defensive posture when his entire administrative team wanted to buffer him from faculty unhappiness and morale issues. The division directors also did not want the head to know what kind of feedback teachers had about them. A faculty committee had developed as a kind of “shadow government” to represent teacher interests. The friction between administration and faculty was palpable. The log jam was broken only when the Head had the personal courage to embrace the concept of inviting the chair of the faculty committee to sit in regularly on administrative council meetings. Though this move was opposed by some of the administration, it prompted the faculty committee to extend a similar invitation to the head.

    Within one year a much more supportive faculty committee was elected, people with whom the Head could work more cooperatively. And that cooperation has led to significant work together as teachers and administration with successful resolution to issues that would have been too explosive to tackle a year before.

    This head also had the foresight to laugh at himself and his own foibles, and to be self deprecating in front of his faculty, demonstrating a welcome sense of humor. That prompted the faculty to laugh with him and not at him. In one session like this, the head’s stock soared with the faculty who saw a different picture of a head whom they had previously viewed as cold, aloof and humorless. He is now “out and about” on the hustings and in the corridors much more often.

  3. THE NATURE AND MAKE UP OF THE FACULTY:Replacing grumpy, unhappy, cynical teachers with ones who are more energetic or committed or loyal can dramatically improve a school’s climate overnight. Conversely hiring the wrong teachers can be a career and school threatening mistake that may not be easily remedied.

    Most schools try to recruit the smartest, or best prepared teachers in terms of subject matter knowledge or proven teaching experience. Some schools place a great deal of stock in teachers with a track record of extensive teaching experience, more often than not in the public schools. But public school attitudes do not always translate well to independent and international schools.

    Heads seldom thoroughly examine attitudes, loyalty factors, affinity with the school’s mission, or a teacher’s willingness to cooperate and handle pressure well.

    This author advocates personality testing before hiring. The first step is to do a personality profile of the current faculty to see what kind of emotional mix of teachers in the school. It is unhealthy to hire too many of the same personality types, for example. A school filled with bright ambitious, driven teachers often does not result in a faculty that will accept leadership willingly.

    The Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory is one of the most commonly used devices to help determine the right “fit” of the teacher and the school. Remember the School has a mission and a “culture.” You may have to define it better but if you value it, you need to seek out teachers who can buy into it.

    One personality inventory describes four leadership styles: 1. Amiable 2. Expressives. 3. Drivers and 4. Analyticals.

    I have done substantial research on how these various styles succeed or fail in the head’s role in independent schools.

    1. “AMIABLES” tended to avoid conflict or confrontation and said yes to so many requests that over time the natural contradictions of telling everyone “yes” to problems that could not always be resolved with “yes” led to an erosion of confidence. But only over time. “Amiables” could run the school for several years before all these contradictions caught up with them, and the sword came down.
    2. “EXPRESSIVES” were the extroverts, the glad handlers, the outgoing social types who were most comfortable with a sales mode. They too tended to avoid tough decisions and relied on building affinities, connections and friendship to achieve their goals and to protect themselves. This style works for a while, but can lead to long term problems.
    3. “DRIVERS” were as the name implies “driven.” These were the type A personalities that did not shirk decision making or controversy and waded right into the issues with their shirt sleeves rolled up. If they made it through the first three years, they might serve a long term. But many crash in the first three years by stirring up so many hornets’ nests, the faculty are happy to see them go, quickly. Board members generally appreciate drivers a lot at first. And faculty tend to fear them immediately.
    4. “ANALYTICALS” were the most successful heads. These individuals tended to weigh decisions cautiously but not indecisively. They were predictable without noticeable mood swings. They conveyed to the faculty a sense of a sound sturdy head at the helm of the ship. Nothing flashy here but reliable, thoughtful and constructive over time. “Analyticals” also seemed to have the best political sense of the art of the possible. They knew which issues to avoid and which ones to tackle and they had a keen sense of “timing.” “Analyticals” tend to last longer in the job and to leave under their own steam.

    While all heads are a combination of these styles, they tend to have a predominate style. This may seem simplistic but generally the patterns hold true.

  4. THE DEVELOPMENT OF POLITICAL CAPITAL:This is crucial to ensuring a positive school climate. “Political capital” means the reservoir of good will that a head has built up with the faculty in the good times that can be drawn down upon safely in the difficult times. Representing the faculty’s interests to the board, nurturing them, supporting them, fighting for their compensation needs, recognizing their talents, communicating with faculty on a personal level frequently, and defending them against unreasonable parent demands and complaints can all add to that reservoir of political capital.

    Expenditure of political capital occurs when the head makes a mistake, fires someone, acts suddenly or unilaterally, proceeds too rapidly with some change area or in any other way disappoints, hurts or angers the faculty. And if the reservoir is fairly low at the time, the head will need to count his days.

  5. ESTABLISHING ‘BUFFER ZONES’:This is a key ingredient in keeping positive school morale. That means the head of the school must create buffers between himself and negative or potentially negative issues. Heads who always wear a target, always take on the burdens of others, always are willing to make the tough decisions, are being politically naive and often do not survive. Experienced heads realize that manipulation is not always bad. It fact it can be vital.

    One head recently left a school after he personally counseled out a poor performing teacher. He had no back up from his department and division heads in the sense that they were not in the loop of this process as they should have been. It is the author’s opinion that heads should never place themselves in the front lines of the teacher evaluation process. They will miss scheduled observations because of other pressures, and generally not be a consistent part of the evaluation loop.

    This particular head lost his job one year after the teacher was fired because the teacher stirred up a hornet’s nest with the community, faculty, parents, students and board. He claimed he had been “summarily dismissed.” Because the head had not delegated the tough evaluation supervision to other administrators (so he could play good cop to their bad cop at the time of separation), he lost his community support and hence his job.

    When a controversial new process or study is being undertaken, it is a good idea for the head to delegate the leadership of that process to the board or to have an outsider assist in the process of facilitating discussion of the change.

    Managing all these areas is the creative act of good leadership. Each of these areas deserves more careful examination in all schools.

John Littleford
Senior Partner