A school’s campus culture is a critical yet complex entity. It’s something that extends beyond the classrooms themselves, and includes the quality of teachers, the level of parent involvement, the relationships between staff and students, the cohesiveness of the departments, the communication between administration and staff, and so much more. Just as there are so many moving parts to campus culture, it’s not an easy thing to change.
And yet, some of the most effective changes come when shifts are made at the top level, with the school district itself, and have a trickle-down effect into the schools themselves. This was just the case with the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) and it’s Superintendent, Dr. Robert Duron, when the districts frequency of principal-teacher conflicts came to a breaking point: “Problems were bubbling up to us…[they were] rooted in conversations going badly, and we recognized there was a gap in the development of our principals.”
Facing a Burden
As is the case with many districts, conflicts between teachers and principals were often only brought to district administration’s attention once formal grievances had been filed, by which point a peaceful resolution is often too far gone. These formal grievances bring a heavy burden; not only can they be procedurally costly and take excessive amounts of time, but they also serve as a source of distraction that keeps principals from doing the real work they should be doing.
At the root of the issue, Deputy Superintendent, Betty Burks noted, “The principals acknowledged to us that they were kind of stuck with poorly performing teachers”, which resulted because they lacked the capacity to manage crucial conversations, leaving them trapped and blaming a variety of factors that were preventing them from meeting performance expectations.
Finding Influence and Inspiration
After discovering the book, Influencer, and using it to inspire a plan, the district was able to find funding through Title II funds to organize Crucial Conversations Training (a core subject of the book) for themselves, and then decided that they’d train their staff, hoping for a trickle-down effect of change amongst all the schools.
From special Saturday sessions, to key department leaders from transportation, food services, curriculum, instruction, athletics, the district worked to educate all staff members on the best approaches for finding common language and using that common language to promote productive, healthy, and critical conversations amongst those staff members.
But, Did it Work?
Most notably, the district saw a significant drop, over 50%, in overall grievances since implementing the training among staff members. This statistic alone shows that administrators, teachers, and all employees are finding ways to resolve conflict through conversation and have figured out how to navigate the more difficult discussions. Furthermore, there was a 160% increase in recommendations for termination of employees on probationary contracts for poorly performing employees. After providing principals and administrators with the right tools, Associate Superintendent, Toni Thompson pointed out that, “we either help the employee grow, or go” attesting to the effectiveness and confidence of principals in ensuring that their students are getting the best education from qualified teachers.
What started with training for two, grew into a web of knowledge that spread into each and every classroom, ultimately improving the school culture and creating an environment where teachers, principals, and leaders are able to have productive dialogue as well as hold their peers accountable to high educational standards. And it doesn’t stop there: the Superintendent still meets with principals every month to maintain the use of that language and those skills, in order to keep it consistent and to allow them to reinforce the effective approach with their staff. As Dr. Duron insightfully recognizes, “If you want to change the culture of an organization, you have to change the conversation.”