Culture: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization 

Every organization, be it a school, business, or even a family, has a unique culture. Whether the culture is deliberately cultivated, whether or not it is identified, defined and discussed by its members, the culture nevertheless exists. Organizational culture has been on my mind (and my reading list) for a while now. In my “change-agent” work many people viewed my role as mainly technology-related; I viewed my work through a lens of culture change. Technology has the potential to impact culture in that it changes the possibilities for how we think, work and behave.

This is a slide-deck I put together in response to a request to share our school’s culture change as a case-study for other JDS educators. It depicts, in images, my personal reflection on the kinds of changes, in thought and behavior, that helped the school grow and evolve “from point A to point B.”

Prizmah is a brand new organization that has resulted from the merger of five very different legacy organizations. The legacy organizations, besides having different functions and serving different sectors of the Jewish day school community, had completely different work cultures. Many of us now work remotely, so it can be more challenging to develop new work relationships. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on how to proactively build professional culture that inspires and motivates excellent work.

We’ve started with the convening of a strategic culture committee. As a group, we are working to articulate the values and identify the type of culture to which we aspire. Then, implementing backwards planning, we think about what types of activities might serve to bring about the vision.

Some things we have explored:

  • Weekly “virtual coffee” dates where people are paired up and asked to get together for a meeting with no agenda. In a non-remote workplace, people get to know each other through informal conversations, and these conversations often result in work-related connections and collaborations. In a remote workplace, we have to create these opportunities.
  • A book-exchange: Again, we were paired up and had the simple task of choosing and gifting a book to our partner. In a learning culture, being able to share and discuss reading opens the doors to deeper and more meaningful work interactions
  • Book clubs/discussions: Similar to the book exchange, the book club is a great way to focus our conversations on shared learning while getting to know each other.

Some things we have discussed but have not yet implemented:

  • Norms: Norms are a vital component in the creation of positive work (or school or classroom) culture. If the norms are not explicitly stated, people will intuit what they believe the norms to be, and this can get messy.

    Classroom Norms Image Created by Isa Z

  • Good and Welfare/Appreciations: This is something that happens in a non-structured way. However, it’s so important to feel acknowledged and recognized that I wonder what kinds of structures we could incorporate that would feel genuine. (I did a lot of work with appreciations when I was a teacher, as part of building my classroom culture. At first, it was very forced and difficult for students to “give appreciations” but after deliberate practice, they grew in both the habit of being appreciative as well as giving specific and genuine comments.)

As you can gather, these ideas go beyond the typical confines of the work alone. Work, like school, is at the core of our lives in an important way. Work, like school, is where we necessarily spend a good deal of our time and energy. Everyone wants to do his or her best work, to make a contribution and have positive interactions with colleagues or classmates. There is a saying, in the world of teaching, that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I believe this gets to the heart of the need to examine and define culture in the school, classroom and workplace. As Shira Heller writes, “Schools are for humans.” Many of the problems we face might be more likely to be solved in an environment that taps into who we are as people. And that is the work of creating culture.
What are your experiences with culture creation in the classroom, school or other organization?

Here are a few of the articles our strategic culture committee has read and discussed:

Soulful Staff Meetings

Taking a Long Break: How Kronos boss Aron Ain motivates staff

How SoulCycle is Crushing Corporate Culture