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Book Review of "School Culture Recharged" by Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker

Wednesday, March 7, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by JP Hemingway, Head of the Upper School at Altamont School, Birmingham, AL

There is little that gets my blood flowing like the anticipation of planning a new class. So when a colleague recently approached me about proposing a senior seminar that we would teach together, I jumped at the chance. Because neither of us has done any team teaching or curriculum sharing before, it has been stimulating, fun, and a little daunting to plan. Part English class and part cultural study, our seminar is slowly taking shape, but it is not entirely ready for public consumption yet. Even so, my colleague and I have started telling students and other faculty members about the class and what we hope to achieve by crossing departments and the curriculum for this seminar. Although we have garnered a good bit of interest as well as skepticism, what has given the class its purpose up to this point has been the story we are telling, a story of two teachers testing new methods in pursuit of opportunities for our students to gain a better understanding of their region’s culture. We are excited to try something new, take the risks we encourage in our students, and learn from all our mistakes and successes along the way.

Our school culture is one that values creativity, but it is also a bit risk adverse when it comes to changing the way we frame what should happen in the classroom. My colleague and I have gone a little out on a limb, but it has been engaging and challenging to get this ball rolling. Hopefully this incremental change in curriculum, framed by the stories of the future classes we want to see at registration, will turn the wheel of our traditional school culture.

I recently read School Culture Recharged by Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker, which is the follow up to School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. (Even though I have not read the latter title, that did not hamper my ability to follow the lingo or the message of this book.) It is an easy and quick read with plenty of activities and methods clearly laid out for any school leader to implement. The first thing that struck me about this book is Gruenert and Whitaker’s intentional delineation of the terms “climate” and “culture.” While school climate can literally change with the weather (“Are we calling off school tomorrow if it snows?!”) school culture is who we are, behaviors we resort to in moments of crisis, and what is probably hardest to change. According to Gruenert and Whitaker, looking at a school through the dual lenses of climate and culture helps leaders get a handle on what the community needs and what its capacity for change may be. A school culture’s seeming immutability can be a great asset if the culture is rooted in the school’s mission and values, but it is the biggest obstacle when it is time for a change, since it can overpower new or opposing viewpoints.

For the most part, the book offers strategies for enabling the right pockets of teachers to feel free to take risks and do what is right, even if the culture of a school encourages them to take short cuts or perpetuate negative ideas within the building. In this way, empowered subcultures can actually be more powerful than the prevailing school culture and can be the impetus for change, as Gruenert and Whitaker state, “If the majority of dedicated people feel free to do the right thing and others who seem less invested feel more pressure to do the right thing, it can actually create a world in which the students end up benefiting the most” (35). Gruenert and Whitaker advocate using peer pressure for good, allowing the best teachers to take on new challenges and those who are weaker to feel constant pressure to improve.

I particularly appreciated the concept of starting with small, really small, actions or new attitudes in order to edge a school toward positive change. For instance, Gruenert and Whitaker cite examples where simply praising individual improvements or behaviors that embodied the desired change actually was the shift in culture that over time led to a broader readiness for change. I have taken this advice to heart and have already found it encouraging not only for myself, but also for those who are consistently doing good work every day or sincerely trying to learn and make improvements. This is not so different from what we know to be true of our students: if you identify the positive forces in a classroom and you empower them rather than spending all your time and energy on the negative, you can create a class culture where the negative forces are no longer the focus of the class’ attention.

For me, the most inspirational tactic from the book (perhaps it is only because I am an English teacher) is that of telling the stories of the culture we want to see. These stories could be those of unsung successes in the building today or new ideas that embody what we hope to see in the future. Anyone can walk into a full classroom and quickly discover the transformative power of telling a story, as Leslie Marmon Silko warns us, “you don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.” In this case, the stories we all tell are the persistent pulse of the school culture as it evolves and reinvents itself. Positive stories are like the slow and steady tortoise steadfastly moving toward the finish line of a better future while disregarding the obnoxious taunting of the hare whose story of hubris leads to defeat.

We’ll see how the new senior seminar turns out, who signs up, what stories of success and failure we will be able to tell, and how it might nudge our culture toward enabling teachers to take more risks, learn from mistakes, and move forward with support and confidence that their innovations are valued. Regardless of the outcome next year, I’ll be telling those stories to anyone who will listen. In the meantime, I’ll be glad that I have School Culture Recharged as a reference while our school continues its pursuit of a more perfect school environment.







JP Hemingway is head of the upper school at The Altamont School in Birmingham, AL. 


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