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Strategies to Create a Compassionate School 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. Watch the full recording here.

What is your definition of school culture?

Tara: When I think of culture, I think of the vibe, the feel of a place.

A culture is made up of shared human experiences and the values and the expectations of a group of people.

Dr. Shepherd: It’s the way of life of a group of people. It’s the DNA of the group.

Can you change culture? How?

Dr. Shepherd: I’ve been an elementary principal, a high school principal and now a superintendent for almost 18 years in three different states. I’ve gotten to experience lots of different types of cultures and see their evolution. So without question, the answer is yes. I think a big part of that is figuring out a way to be smarter than your brain. Your brain brings a framework to every conversation, to everything that you’re doing, and while your brain is wonderfully powerful, it can also be very limiting.

You can create ways and mechanisms in your life that allow you to be smarter than your brain, to see your own limitations and to help others see beyond their own limitations.

So here’s an example of being smarter than your brain. Let’s say I’m looking to hire 10 new people to be on my team. I want to hire the 10 best people, but that’s impossible. So instead of hiring the 10 best, can I hire the best 10? Meaning can I hire the 10 people who work best together and become the best group of 10 in the state of Texas? Well, yeah, actually that’s a pretty easy goal. It’s that slight change in language, that slight change in perspective that allows you to see beyond your limitations, to turn what would otherwise be constraining variables into enabling variables. That’s one way to change culture; you can change the language.

Tara: I absolutely agree that culture can be changed. I taught for 14 years in elementary school, and I had a couple of years that were really challenging; I was suffering and I wasn’t happy in what used to be my happy place. I realized I had to change something. I had to bring more joy into the classroom, not just for my sake, but more importantly for the sake of my students.

I recognized that I was suffering because, as you will read in this amazing book that Dr. Shepherd has written, I was not accepting things as they were and I was fighting against the new ways of doing things and I was becoming increasingly stressed.

I was able to change the culture by finding things that helped me to lessen my burden.

For me that was meditation and yoga. Then I brought those skills into my classroom and I saw our classroom culture change.

Dr. Shepherd: Yeah. We have to be careful about those burdens that we pick up and put on our shoulders, don’t we? Because sometimes they’re really hard to set down.

Let’s talk a little about school-wide or classroom-wide practices. Tara starting with you, what are some of the strategies and practices you started to implement to enhance the culture?

Tara: To strengthen the culture in my classroom, I started with a focus on making sure my students felt seen and heard. For instance, I started a kudos board in my classroom and I would recognize students for their non-academic strengths.

In order to really foster a compassionate culture, it’s important to recognize the unique gifts that everyone brings above and beyond their academic strengths.

I also made sure everyone had a voice during class meetings. And, I’d present multiple opportunities to meet in smaller groups to encourage each person to contribute to the group. One way I did this was by hosting small group lunches in my classroom, which gave students more of an opportunity to get to know one another and feel seen and heard.

Are there different approaches when looking at district culture change?

Dr. Shepherd: I think that regardless of the how – how they decide to approach it – the why is almost always the same. When we focus on relationships first, and when we focus on the wellbeing of the kids in our classrooms and when teachers focus on each other’s well being and when the principal focuses on the wellbeing of the teachers and the students and the parents and so on and so forth, you recognize that focusing on relationships has to be number one.

My best advice: “remember that the person beside you is more important than the task in front of you.”

We have a question from the audience, “I want to change the culture at my school but I don’t think I have the support from the leadership. Any thoughts on how to get them on board?

I’d recommend focusing on what you can control. Make your efforts known in the classroom because the culture that you create in your classroom will speak volumes about what’s possible. Show how you can create a culture of care and love and compassion.

I teach aspiring superintendents and principals at university, and one of the things that I focus on as a teacher is to try to resist the temptation to tell the students what you want from them. It’s not that we don’t want certain things from kids, but if we lead with what I want from you, it sends a very direct message; It abuses these notions of hierarchies and power and control and is that really the way we want our classrooms to feel for kids?

So instead of focusing our time on what we want from each other, what if we focus some of our time on what we want for each other?

 How do you ensure success and how do you measure it?

Tara: First you have to make sure it’s sustainable; don’t bite off more than you can chew. Small changes build up over time to create big changes. Also, it’s important for your way to feel authentic for you; it would’ve been really difficult for me to change the culture of my classroom using a model that worked for someone else. For me, it was yoga and meditation, for someone else it’s going to be something entirely different.

So again, it’s about bringing in that authenticity, honoring who you are and making sure that these are things you can keep up with.

In terms of measurement, there are so many ways to measure it. One is just the vibe of the classroom, the feel of the classroom. Are my students smiling? Are they smiling at me? Are they smiling at each other? Are they coming in happy? Do they come in happy, but then take a nose dive when they come into the classroom? That’s a sure sign that things are not going well. Their achievement is a reflection of how they feel in the classroom as well. So if the students you would expect to see achievement from are meeting or exceeding that, that is one measure within the classroom.

We have a tool called the moody moment which is just about checking in with your students to see where their mood is at the beginning and end of the day. I used to have a board where students could stick a post it describing their mood as they were leaving the classroom. I would read each post-it and gather so much information about how my students were feeling in my classroom.

Dr. Shepherd:

If I walk into a classroom, I know the culture within three to five seconds. You will either find a hide and seek or a show and tell culture.

If it’s a hide and seek culture, then I know instantaneously that either the teacher is using data to punish kids or the principal is using data to punish teachers, or the superintendent is using data to punish the principals or the school board’s using data to punish whoever they want to. And that creates a hide and seek culture.

But if everyone is committed to using data as a flashlight and not a hammer, then people start to celebrate their success and they start to celebrate their failure because they know they’re not gonna get punished for it. And then you build this amazing show and tell culture where people can’t wait to share what’s going well and what they’re frustrated by and what they’re learning about.

Stay tuned for more insights in Part 2 of the blog coming soon. Dr. Shepherd and Tara discuss empowering non-instructional staff, measuring success, the qualities that make up a good leader and the roles of students and parents in culture change.