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Episode 7: Building the House: Staff Climate and Culture

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken: Hello and welcome to DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. With the beginning of the school year upon us, it is so exciting to think about all of the future possibilities that may present themselves. As many teachers approach a school year, they're not only thinking about climate and culture for their students, but also for their own climate and culture as teachers and staff members.

In this episode we'll be discussing this very topic with two educators from New Jersey and getting their perspective on what both teachers and administrators can do to create a positive climate and culture for staff in their schools’ buildings.

Kimberly Dickstein, High School ELA Teacher

Kimberly: My name is Kimberly Dickstein and I am the 2020 Camden County Teacher of the Year. I teach English Language Arts, grades nine through twelve at Haddonfield Memorial High School.

Ken: As a recent Camden County Teacher of the Year Awardee, Kimberly had some great ideas about the podcast and reached out to me about them. In turn, I found out that this was an area that she was very passionate about and was able to interview her about the things that she's seen and she's done to build staff climate and culture in her context.

Kimberly: So to me, climate is the environment we create for teaching and learning. And culture is the home we build to live in. We have to lean on each other all the times, so that culture--that home we live in, has to be really structurally sound.

Ken: When you think about your experience, what have you seen that successfully fosters climate and culture for staff and faculty in a school.

Kimberly: Enthusiasm. If you want to foster a climate and culture that supports the best possible teaching and learning, you have to have passion and that can be contagious, and it can run through the hallways of a school. But you have to also nurture that and celebrate that. And when you are in an environment that celebrates you for you and how you do things, I think that you organically create positive environment.

There are obstacles to that all of the time. Because the school year presents those, uh, to everyone--all stakeholders. But I think if, again, your structure is sound, um, you will foster a positive environment.

My colleagues really make a conscious and active effort to foster community. So, I know the Humanities Department at Haddonfield Memorial High School has "Finer Things Friday." Each teacher signs up at the beginning of the semester for a Friday--bring in a finer thing for everyone to have and celebrate and have that collegial space together.

I know that during midterms, which is a very stressful time for students and educators, our Science Department has had eating contests, or breakfasts, for everyone to come in. And I know our Foods and Nutrition Teacher also hosts the group for that.

At the end of the year, the Science Department also puts together Staff [O]lympics, so that's during finals and all the stress. And that is just a great way to get everyone to meet together.

Um, one of our Phys. Ed--Physical Education Teachers, he organizes a baseball game. So it's really the staff organizing for one another. I feel part of a community. I remember, "Oh, this is the culture that we've created for one another."

And also including one another in our content area. So I teach a Shakespeare course and take my students on multiple field trips. And I think it's very important to engage teachers outside of my content area to be chaperones on those trips to celebrate what we are doing in my classroom and share that. And that's another example of just building a culture of enthusiasm and passion.

Ken: It can be easy to think just about the big things like celebrating milestones when it comes to building a culture where everyone feels that collegial bond. But it's also important to think about sweating the small stuff. In this next segment, Kimberly emphasizes the importance of this and how it really shifted her mindset to have a colleague come in and show her kindness in a very small, but powerful and meaningful way.

Kimberly: So I can think of examples where my colleagues have supported me. And I can tell those stories, 'cause they're mine to tell. So, I know, at the beginning of the last school year, um, I was struggling with just...too much on my plate. And I think that, most teachers too many times, they default to "yes." Um, colleagues saw me struggling, um, and the next day I came in with a sign, that said "Kim" and it was in rainbow colors. And there was a beautiful note on the back. And she had her daughter draw this sign for my classroom. And I know this is something very small, but it mattered to me because it was my name. It was happy. She engaged her family in reminding me that I'm going to be okay.

And I keep that sign right behind my desk even now because... we talk about building this home, right? And when you walk into your home, you have walls. We put things on our walls to remind us of a happy time, a place, the people in our life. And to me, we have to put things on our walls--figuratively. Meaning that we have to see each other and celebrate one another. So it might be a poster I put in my classroom, but it could also be a Tweet. It could also be photocopies. It could also be a coffee on my desk in the morning. And I can think of--and I'm listing those examples because those are all things that my colleagues have done for me and I have done for my colleagues.

It starts small. And we build our house piece by piece to make it a home. And that has happened for us because of that enthusiasm and passion for education. We tend to be islands, right? Just -- I just want to go to my room, right? I think kids go home, "Mom, dad, I just wanna go to my room," right? That's our safe space. I think getting outside of your classroom and engaging as much as possible --whether it's standing in the hallway, going to places that sometimes have gotten a negative the teachers' room, can actually be a positive place. And that's where community starts, right? Convening together.

And we should take ownership of those opportunities and make the most of them.

That's a really organic way to create culture. Just be with people. I think we forget that -- to be with our colleagues. And if we want to create  culture and be really active about that, you should be intentional. You have to be willing to put in the work. It doesn't have to be a lot of work. It's as simple as on Twitter celebrating one another.

I think online platforms, too, are a great place to celebrate one another. I think we forget that. Because we individually post about what's happening in our classrooms. Celebrate that and show our students we lift each other up. Show our community that we lift each other up. And I think that's contagious. You lift every voice on any platform in real life, or online, people are going to feel that. And they are going to wanna be part of that culture.

Ken: How can administrators partner with staff in this area? How can they think through what's happening in their school and, you know, thinking about building those relationships to really increase climate and culture?

Kimberly: Administrators have to be willing to play too. Participate in "Finer Things." Be in the places where your teachers are, not in an observational capacity, but a participatory capacity. And again I think that's organic. It's simple. And it's a great place to start.

Don't tell people that we have this great culture of excellence. Be a part of it. And play. I think that all levels we don't embrace play and joy as much as possible and it can be difficult. But administrators can participate too. I don't think that there needs to be that barrier.

Every school has a different organizational structure. So if you have curriculum leaders, or if you have teacher leaders in your district, collaborate with them to talk about what are the needs of each department, so at least that is established -- that we're meeting needs. That you have a vision, but it's purposeful. And you're meeting the goals of creating this culture.

It shouldn't be something that worked as X school and now we're going to implement it at Y. Because it's not always to going to work. It has to be unique to your space. You have to know the needs and wants of your staff.

Creating school climate and culture begins at the start of the school year, but you have an opportunity throughout the 180 days to shift and change and rebuild. But it does start from the beginning, so be thoughtful about it and continue to work toward nurturing that space.

[end of Kimberly’s section]

Ken: My next guest is someone who you’ll see around the state and on Twitter talking about this issue. We were able to sit down and talk about how climate and culture impacts not just teachers, but also administrators. And how both need to work together to build the climate and culture of a school.

Paul O’Neill, Supervisor of Instruction

Paul: My name is Paul O’Neill, and I’m a Supervisor of Instruction in Lacey Township at the Millpond Elementary School where we service students that are pre-K and grades five and six.

Ken: How--how would you define climate and culture? What—what is climate and culture to you when it comes to, you know, teachers and administrators in a school, or in a district?

Paul: Such an important topic and climate, for me, is--is the mood of the school. It is what you feel when you walk into the school, whether you're somebody that works at the school or you're somebody that's visiting the school.

And culture is how we do business. It's--it's how we live. What are our traditions and the everyday functioning of the school?

As educators, many of us got into this field help, you know. To help make life better for students and to--to help students become their best selves. We're being asked to do so much and the expectations for students and the expectations for--for teachers, and administrators, continues to grow and sometimes that can be very frustrating.

However,  if we go back to our heart, and we try to look at doing what's best for kids and--and being there for kids and being there for each other, then we're able to make sure that--that mood stays pretty positive.

Ken: How can teachers think about that piece of being there for each other? Like, what are some practical tips that teachers can think about when it comes to really supporting each other in climate and culture?

Paul: I think staying connected is key. And--and one of the things in previous years of education, it was very popular to be one your own island, you know? You have your own classroom and you just--you put your head down and you go into the classroom and focus on your business.

But, I think that's changed greatly now and our world has changed in the sense that we are expected to collaborate more with other people. Excellence doesn't happen in isolation,  like my friend Dennis Griffen says on Twitter.

So, it's so important to--to network with teachers, whether that be inside your building or outside the walls of your--your classroom. It's important to connect with teachers virtually. It's important to connect with teachers on social media. It's important to continue conversations about how to keep things moving in a positive direction.

Because we face a lot of challenges and it can be very easy to get sidetracked by obstacles. It can get very easy to get sidetracked by feelings of...of ineffectiveness, because so much is put upon us that sometimes we feel like we can't get it all done. So, staying connected and finding that support from your professional learning network, I think, is one of the best ways to stay positive.

Ken: So if there is a teacher kind of working on an island like you said, in your school, what's a good way to really each out to them and to try to really make those connections and build your professional learning network, not just from without, but also from within?

Paul: So that’s – that’s a layered question. So if you are looking at it from a teacher-to-teacher perspective, I think one of the ways draw people out is to start conversations and to find out what people are doing that is successful. And starting conversations to collaborate, you know. "Can I come check out a lesson?" You know, do a little peer-to-peer observation.

But that can also happen from an administrative level. I think the magic happens outside of the--the administrator's office. It happens, obviously, in the hallways and in the classrooms and in the cafeterias and the recess fields.

So, being present and trying to be out there as much as you possibly can, where the magic happens, will build a level of comfort for teachers and administrators so that when a teacher sees an administrator, they don't go "What's wrong?" You know. Or, "Am I being observed?" You know. You wanna try to eliminate that type of culture because then suddenly there's an absence of trust, you know. There's that mentality where, you know, every time I see an administrator it's something negative or they're going to observe me.

So you want to be able to have conversations, whether after school or during school or before school. So that everybody realizes that the goal is to try to row in the same direction.

Ken: When it comes to administrators, what are -- what are some best practices for building climate and culture in a building? And what have you seen that's -- that's worked?

Paul: So I’ve been a few places, in different roles. I've been in Lacey Township since 2006. So, that place has been pretty consistent. But I've also been in other districts. So, I'll speak from different viewpoints of what I've seen as a teacher and as an administrator.

I really believe, and I was thinking on the way here, when we talk about climate and culture, that it's a matter of trust. So now I have the Billy Joel song in my head, you know, I'm singing the song.
But it's the truth. You know, it is a matter of trust. But it's how you build that trust that's going to help improve those relationships.

So how do you do that? Like I just started at Millpond Elementary last year. And I came from the -- Lacey Township High School and Middle School, which I had been for many years. With a very good reputation, but I told the staff, "I don't wanna rest on that reputation. I want us to get to know each other. I want us to get to work together. I want us to get to trust each other." But, at the same time, I understand that it's gonna take time. We're not going to trust each other on day one. We're not gonna understand each other on day one.

So that building of trust is so important and that happens through conversations. It happens through active listening. And it really happens through availability. You know in sports they say the best ability is availability. So, this is the same thing in education as well, and really in any organization, if you think about it, is being available for people. You know, being available to talk. But more importantly, being available to listen. That active listening piece is so important.

I'll never forget my first year as the supervisor, I had a teacher come to me and she said, you know, "Do you have some time to talk?" And I said, "Absolutely." And she started to present some obstacles and some challenges that she had going on. And in my head I'm making a mental checklist, and I'm like "Um, that one's easy. I got a solution for that. Ah, that one’s easy." Like, "we can handle that one. I think I got something for that too."

So, when there was a break in the action, I said to her, "You've presented me with some great things. And I have some ideas of, you know, how we can approach that."

So I start laying out my ideas. And I get two or three ideas in. And she puts her index finger up to stop me for a second. And she said, "Hey, Paul. I really appreciate your feedback and I appreciate your ideas. But I just really needed to vent, and I needed someone to listen."

And that was a great lesson learned for me, you know. That active listening piece is so important, you know. It's, "why did this person come to you?" They likely came to you because there was trust. So now we have to figure out from that standpoint where do we go from there? Are we listening just to listen? Are we listening to ask questions -- to try to find solutions together? Or is someone coming to you and they want you to listen and propose a solution? So I think understanding what your role is in it. But even more so,  understanding the person and what their expectations are of you, is really the most important piece.

Ken: How do you scale that up from just, you know, me talking to you to a group of teachers and administrators, together, going that same way?

Paul: We’re in a people business, and the most important part of that is that we have to remember that we're here to serve people. And one of the things that was important to me as a teacher, it meant so much, was when an administrator would come up to me and ask me how I was doing. That real meaningful, like, "How are things?" and "Let's talk about you." Like, "how has your week been?" And "what great things do you have going on in your class?" you know. "What obstacles do you have?"

When it really becomes that, and teachers realize that they're cared for and they're supported. More important than what you say, it's more about how you make people feel. It's the experience. And I think when people look back on an experience and they go "Wow. I felt empowered." "Wow, I felt heard." "Wow, I felt included." Those are the things that build such powerful climate and cultures in schools. And I've had a lot of success using that approach.

When a teacher feels supported, they're--they're going to really feel empowered to do great things and really feel empowered to step out on a ledge and maybe try something that they wouldn't have felt comfortable enough to try before.

So one of the things I talk about in [unclear] when I see each other at a lot of EdCamps, is I talk about administrations supporting teachers to become stars in their roles. So what I mean by that is...not everybody can be the football coach--the head football coach--there's one position for that. And not everybody can be the yearbook advisor or the advisor of SGA. You know, traditionally, there's one position for that. And those positions are held for long periods of time. Or maybe somebody's just not qualified or interested in that position.

So as an administrator, I think it's really important to have these conversations with teachers to find out "what lights your lamp?" You know, "what are you so passionate about that you love to do?" And maybe it's something that already exists. But maybe it's something that needs to be created. Again, going back to that "create the culture you desire" type of thing. And I emphasize being a star in your role because everybody has an opportunity to contribute to the climate and culture of the school community.

And as leaders, when we can help people find that opportunity to be a star in their role, then we've really improved the climate and culture of our school community. We've built leaders. I always say leaders build leaders. You know, we can't have enough leadership, you know. And we all lead in different ways. Leadership isn't a title, you know. It's not something that only administrators can be leaders. The teachers can be leaders as well. And the teachers are our most important leaders because they're making many decisions and they're right there in the classrooms with the kids. So we have to have them feeling empowered. We have to have them feeling positive about the climate and culture. It's not always holding hands and singing songs. There are some negativity and negative things we have to deal with. But we have to focus on what can we control, letting go of what we can't control, and putting that in its place. And then maximizing what we can control.

[end of section]


Ken: Thank you for listening to today’s episode and from all of us at the New Jersey Department of Education, we hope that this is your best school year yet. As you gear up for the school year, we would love for you to join us on our third-Tuesday Twitter chat at #NJEdPartners. This month, the chat will be on September 17, 2019 at 8:30 pm.

Please join the Department and colleagues from around the state in talking about how to integrate this essential topic into this upcoming school year.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.
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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.
Thanks so much for listening.

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