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Dr. Quintin Shepherd and Tara Karch Talk Transforming Culture

Robin CEO Sonny Thadani sat down with Victoria ISD Superintendent, Dr. Quintin Shepherd and former award-winning teacher and Robin Coach, Tara Karch, to discuss strategies for creating a compassionate school culture from a district and classroom-level perspective. Read part one or watch the full recording.

Are there ways that leaders can empower not only teachers, but instructional staff as well?

Tara: I think a lot of it has to do with communication. If you feel like you’re the last one to know something, then you’re not feeling that sense of belonging, and you’re certainly not feeling empowered. So I think you need open communication, where it’s given to everyone at the same time so people aren’t hearing it second hand. But also taking input from teachers, staff, the entire community of the school in order to shape how we’re going to do things.

Dr. Shepherd:

The people who are going to be most impacted by a decision should have the greatest voice in that decision.

So with the pandemic response plan in our district, we started getting feedback and input from teachers and staff. We then wrote the first version of the plan, and shared it with the students next. After inputting their feedback, we shared with the parents.

It may be time consuming but that’s how you build consensus and loyalty. And that loyalty and enthusiasm moves you from a transactional relationship to a transformational relationship. That transforms culture.

What role do parents play in supporting and creating culture change?

Tara: Parents play a critical role. They’re such a great source of information and support.

Building and fostering relationships with parents can really make or break your experience in the classroom as a teacher.

Dr. Shepherd: We have to be honest about whether we’re meeting the expectations of parents in our classrooms. The more parents are involved, the more successful the school is likely to be. In the 18 years of my career, I’ve seen it everywhere I go. But we have to meet the basic level of parent’s expectations for their children to even start building relationships with parents.

Are there specific character traits or types of people that make better leaders for changing the culture?

Dr. Shepherd: A learning, teachable heart. That’s number one.

I think a savvy leader is a vulnerable, compassionate, authentic person who connects with others in a human way.

I think the other thing about leadership is that you see different types of leadership be successful in different contexts. Leaders have been differentiating the style of leadership, depending on the space that they’re in. That was one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Secret of Transformational Leadership, to explore the new style of leadership.

Tara: When I began my career, an effective or good leader was someone who could teach and guide. As a novice teacher, I was looking for guidance to be the best teacher I could be.

As I evolved in my own profession and craft, I think the leadership traits I valued more were authenticity, open communication, listening to and hearing people. I also think the idea of compassion is really important for effective leaders. A compassionate leader goes beyond empathy: “I see your suffering. I’m sorry for your suffering” to “I want to be with you as you suffer. I want to bring you hope and help alleviate your suffering because I know that we can do this together.”

What role do the students play in helping and supporting the culture shift?

Dr. Shepherd: The first thing that comes to mind is this notion of the difference between goal-based habits and identity-based habits. A great example of an identity-based habit is brushing our teeth. You don’t want to have the identity of somebody who has bad breath and stuff in your teeth. So you have this identity-based habit that’s really important to you. And no matter where you go, you bring your toothbrush and you brush your teeth regardless.

This is how you impact culture. You create an identity, a classroom identity, not a classroom goal.

We don’t have a classroom goal to treat each other kindly. Our identity is that we act with kindness and compassion in everything we do. And it starts with me, the teacher, and it starts with you, the students.

Tara: Students are great partners because they are so innovative and fresh. They have such great ideas and they’re not afraid to put them out. They can absolutely help change the culture. They make suggestions and give you feedback on what’s working and what’s not working in the classroom.

I had a parent who sent me an article one year about a teacher who had her students write her a letter – “I wish my teacher knew…” I implemented that in my classroom. I created a little box and students knew that they could write me a note any time they had something that they thought I should know. They could put it in that box where no one else could see it. I was the only one with the key. And that was a really great way to get information from students that they might not want to share in front of everybody. Very often the notes addressed things going on in the classroom and ideas of how we could make them better. Students had great ideas and it was so helpful to give them different ways of sharing them.

A question from the audience, how do you take the 3 Cs and apply them to a bully?

Tara: I’m going to start by circling back to the importance of language. I can’t teach the 3 Cs to a bully because there isn’t a bully. Instead, there is a person who is choosing to engage in bullying behavior.

And in order to really address that, you need to get to the root of why that person is hurting. Why is that person in so much pain that they’re reaching out and trying to cause suffering to others?

Anyone who is engaging in bullying behavior is probably feeling disconnected. So a start is to provide opportunities for that person to make connections with others. They need to embrace compassion themselves, but they need compassion shown to them. “I see that you’re suffering. I’m with you as you’re suffering. However, your choices are not acceptable. I have hope that you’re going to change them. I’m going to support you in doing so.”

Community goes back to connection. We need to make sure that that the person engaging in bullying behavior is not vilified. The need to be embraced by the community, celebrated for the strengths that they bring and supported as they learn to make better choices.

If there’s one or two things you want people to walk away with, what would that be?

Tara: Compassion. It starts with recognizing the suffering of others, standing with them in it, offering hope and working together to alleviate it.

Connection. Does every student have a connection to at least one adult in the building? Does every adult in the building have a connection to another adult in the building? The more we can build those connections, the stronger our culture is, the stronger our school communities are.

Dr. Shepherd: How do you build an unbreakable culture with another human being and an unbreakable culture in the classroom? Safety, connections and shared future.

Let’s create a safe space first so we can have this conversation. Let’s establish connections, and then coming out of this is a shared future. If you put those three pieces together, my relationship with you is unbreakable.

The other takeaway is for teachers who need to hear this:

You are everything you need to be in this world to make the change that you’re supposed to. You are enough. There’s just an unprecedented level of pressure right now in the classroom. And there are people who love you. All of us. We love you.