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To change the system, change the culture

By Tom Whitby 9/24/2014 Leadership Professional learning

One of my greatest frustrations as an education professor working with students just entering the profession has been the growing gap between connected educators and unconnected educators and their influence on the culture of a school.

Many educators look to colleges to provide the “new blood” of youthful fledgling teachers who will introduce new methods and ideas to help drive their schools into the next century of learning. I think this expectation of new teachers leading innovation in education is a myth that has been around since the 19th century, although my own experience can only verify it from the early 1970s. The fact is that no matter how well-prepared a new teacher comes with new ideas and methods for teaching, the school’s culture remains the most influential factor in determining the success or failure of that teacher.

The impact of culture

There are schools with thriving cultures in which the leadership encourages, supports and rewards risk and innovation. Teachers are mentors and leaders in an environment where collaboration abounds. Both time and incentives are provided for ideas and commitments that move teaching and learning forward.

Unfortunately, although these cultures exist and should be models for education, they are not yet the standard within American education. All educators need to be exposed to these cultures so they know these possibilities exist.

It is the culture of the school that determines openness to change. Whether or not the faculty is open and collaborative is established by the school culture. New teachers with new ideas will have little impact on a toxic school culture. New teachers too often must “go along to get along” in a school that supports the status quo, with a stagnant culture so ingrained in the faculty and leadership that little or no change can ever occur. New ideas do not thrive in these environments. People do not take teaching to the next level because it is just not done. There are no examples of innovation to build upon. Success is measured by compliance.

The value of connecting

Any educator, new or experienced, in such an environment needs exposure to what is possible within other thriving cultures if change is to occur. An obvious answer is for those educators to go to places where innovation and change is happening. To experience the successes in education innovation, we need not plan a bus trip or budget for international education conferences. We simply need to put educators who are open to innovation and change with those educators who are successfully achieving it. Using the very digital literacy skills all educators are supposed to be teaching, we can connect, communicate, curate, collaborate and create with those who are successfully effecting change in positive ways.

Technology offers us the means to connect with education thought leaders and authors who are framing the education discussions. More importantly, it can connect us with other educators who are successfully applying innovative ideas in teaching and learning. These connections become a network of sources who supply relevant information that maintains our own relevance in education.

The ability to connect with other educators moves us away from whatever impediments are imposed by schools or administrators. We can get beyond the experiences of the teachers in a single school building. We can share ideas beyond our counties, states and country to gain a global perspective.

A thought not shared can never become an idea. It will always be a passing thought. Sharing is the key to successful connections. Collaborating is the key to successful ideas. Together, we are smarter than we are individually. Educators have the ability to collaborate beyond their buildings with others who may be more willing than school colleagues to share and collaborate. Educators need to develop these networks of collaboration. They no longer need to be limited by the roadblocks within their school’s culture.

Tom Whitby is a former professor of education and host of the Edchat Radio Show on the BAM Radio Network. Connect with him on Twitter via @tomwhitby.

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