Kendall Terry, assistant director of Clayton-Bradley Academy shares how they are developing a culture where people want to attend, work, and grow.
What makes a school campus unique? What causes a person to feel something different when they go from classroom to classroom? What makes a parent know that their child’s school is the best option? There are many answers to these questions. Research and data have been analyzed to uncover the magic sauce. The short answer is culture. Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That statement is true for school culture as well. So, how does one develop a culture that changes the school atmosphere where people are drawn to attend, work, and partner?
Merriam-Webster defines culture as, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” In reading that definition, most schools would point to their mission and vision statements and acknowledge that these statements set the tone. However, when walking down the sidewalks, through the hallways, into classrooms, cafeterias, and sporting events, are the values from their mission and vision observed? That question hits at the heart of this struggle. Schools must get everyone on the same page if the attitudes, values, goals, and practices are truly shared or not. The challenge must be examined through the lens of the organization with application down to the average employee, student, parent, and community partner.
Clayton-Bradley Academy (CBA) addresses this challenge by identifying the key pieces to a shared culture. The starting point for organizations is the mission and vision statements. Are these statements known across campus? Are they believed by staff, students, and families? The organization must be relationship oriented. How is the school building relationships among staff, with students, with parents, and with the community?
The next step is intentionality. What steps are being taken to intentionally implement the mission and vision and build relationships? What happens when something does not align? The final part of the process is accountability. What systems are in place for alignment and commonality? What support is given to new staff and new ideas?
Mission and Vision Statements
A quick Google search will provide information on how to write mission and vision statements. However, a question that is crucial to this process is whether one can believe in what is being said. Belief in the words being used and promises being made must be organization wide. This must be part of the hiring process, repeatedly stated throughout the year, and connected to implementation of practices. The mission and vision statements must be the starting point for ideas, the filter used, and the reflection point for everything the school participates in throughout the year. This means creative wordsmithing and elaborate phrases need to be weeded out. The mission and vision statements must be understandable and measurable.
CBA breaks their mission down into four statements. The first is critical thinking. Teachers are tasked with creating activities that teach students how to think critically from three-year-olds through 12th grade. The importance is placed on how to think critically and not the activity. This involves creative questions, observations, analyzing skills, and synthesizing of new ideas.
Next, CBA addresses problem solving. How are students being taught to address real world problems? CBA teachers are required to bring the real world into the classroom through “being there” experiences and guest speakers. Curriculum is designed with real world problem solving as the focal point. Then, CBA addresses collaboration. Students learn to work with others to produce authentic work where every person is represented. This includes skills in listening to others, honoring others’ ideas, and being a valued team member. Finally, CBA uses the terms “lifelong guidelines” and “LIFESKILLS” to address citizenship skills. Teachers focus on teaching students how to act in a way that values the community like doing our “personal best,” giving our best “effort,” and showing “friendship.” There are five lifelong guidelines and 21 LIFESKILLS taught through activities and projects and scored throughout the year.
The mission statement components are partnered with our vision to “reimagine education”. CBA strives for learning that feels different, looks unique, and uses brain-based research methods to support learning. Traditions that value learning are kept and mixed with new ways of understanding and teaching. The vision must be one that questions and inspires. Who does not want to learn in a way that values the learning, helps answer the question of why, and focuses on helping each student be successful in their life’s journey? This is not learning for a test, mountains of notes, or memorizing facts. Teachers are challenged with making learning genuine, engaging, and memorable. CBA teachers are given the ability to be a professional that can design curriculum.
Our mission and vision statements set the tone for everything that we do as a school. These statements are used in hiring, onboarding, training, on the wall of every classroom and shared space, and agreed on in our contract. CBA talks about our mission and vision in parent meetings from preschool through 12th grade. Even our athletic coaches are asked to agree to these standards. The mission and vision must be uniform, visible, and discussed if they are organization wide. They are regularly mentioned in board and leadership meetings and planning sessions. Our teachers are reminded in weekly professional development sessions and observations. It is truly an essential part of everything that we do.
A key part of culture is that it is shared, requiring established partnerships on various levels of the school. Relationships must be present in many ways: administrator-faculty, faculty-faculty, faculty-student, student-student, school-families, and school-community. This is crucial to the success of the school and must be targeted and planned. What activities, events, and interactions are taking place to make sure that all key relationships are being developed? What training is being done with school employees to make sure they know how to build the right relationships with each group? Relationships are the key to success but do not happen by chance.
One common thread, discovered in brain research, is that people seek out relationships. Relationships are what bind us to society, community, family, and friends. Relationships are powerful because they help the brain exist in a place of learning, discovery, and risk-taking. CBA believes that relationships are the key to learning. This happens through the New Teachers Academy, our onboarding program, faculty mentor groups, and intentional curriculum design that puts relationships first in our programming. Unlike a one-time icebreaker where people cringe when they must think of one unique attribute about oneself, these are scripted conversations, planned meetings, time given to build valuable interactions, and specific partnerships.
For CBA’s parent interaction, every teacher is required to meet families before the school year begins. These meetings occur in homes, coffee shops, parks, and occasionally on campus. They are designed to open the door to conversation and partnership between the parent and the school. In lower school, these are referred to as “home visits.” Teachers are trained what to say, given handouts to present, and provided with packets to leave. In upper school, this converts to “parent visits” that take place in a multitude of locations with the same intention. The goal is always to provide the parent with a direct connection to their child’s learning and the plan for the year. Plans help build relationships because they foster a process of trust. Relationships are not built on one-time meetings but continued contact throughout the year in the form of weekly emails, teacher website updates, school social media posts, weekly family gatherings, family socials, sport events, annual fund dinners, golf tournaments, 5K runs, and more.
All relationships are important to build, however, the student-teacher and student-peer relationships are most important to learning. Teachers are asked to develop curriculum that offers opportunities to build relationships. Standards take a back seat the first week of class, as getting to know each other and procedures take center stage. CBA wants every student to feel they have friends in their class and a teacher that cares for them. When the brain feels a sense of belonging, it allows the frontal lobe to be activated for learning. Relationships are key to learning and must be intentionally built and developed.
As one may have noticed, the idea of being intentional is a priority. Great culture does not happen by chance, it is planned and executed. Planning sessions must take place with leadership, faculty, and staff to make sure that steps are taken to accomplish the mission and vision. Regular conversations take place that discuss good ideas, but everyone must have the understanding that not all ideas are good for the culture of the school.
This is not to say that flexibility and evolving are not important. The school must be able to adapt to the ever-changing environment. The process of being intentional will allow those changes to be made through the lens of mission and vision.
One way that CBA accomplishes this task of being intentional is using the Highly Effective Teaching (HET) Model. This model of instruction focuses on brain research and practices that allow the student to learn and master standards. Teachers are asked to focus on building curriculum that is thematic and/or conceptual. These ideas are developed using standards for students to master. Inquiries, “being there” experiences, guest speakers, projects, text, and assessments are all chosen based on intentionality towards student learning. Intentional instruction removes traditional methods that focus on low-level memorization resulting in students dumping information once it is used. The HET method addresses curriculum and encompasses the environment of the room, agendas, procedures, community circles, and more. Teachers are asked to show intentionality in everything that happens with their students.
Another practice that shows intentionality is the use of SMART goals to make sure the staff is growing professionally. Developing goals is not a new practice, however, the intentionality used at CBA in setting goals helps to build culture. A culture of professional growth is extremely important to an institution that has a vision of “reimagining education.” How can that vision be carried out if staff are not constantly looking to grow professionally and identify new strategies aligned with brain research and best practices? It is not enough to say everyone must set goals. Staff meet with their supervisor and set goals that align with the mission and vision of the school, come from performance reviews, and are shared with mentor/coaching groups. These groups work together to achieve these goals. Our staff not only teach problem solving and collaboration but practice it with their peers. Transparent goal development allows the organization to be intentional in growth, development, and adaptability.
For the above to be accomplished, there must be accountability within the organization, not just a supervisor that oversees employees. True accountability takes place on a peer-to-peer level in the organization. Staff working to grow professionally and holding peers to that same standard is a great tool. As new staff come to CBA, they are involved in meetings with their principal to set initial goals on understanding the HET model and learning the CBA culture. This is communicated to their mentors and coaching team so that as they move throughout the year, specific check-ins will take place on these goals. New staff hear the goals of others in their mentor/coaching group and learn how to hold them accountable as well, providing an environment of working together to help everyone grow and develop professionally.
Accountability is a must for any policy to work. CBA works from the philosophy of what gets monitored, gets done. Principals and supervisors are not micromanaging employees, but everyone agrees to be transparent, give honest feedback, partner with a group to grow, and celebrate success when goals are achieved. This kind of culture only happens when everyone is tasked with holding each other accountable. Our supervisors and principals look for ways to celebrate achievement and not wait for a performance review to appear to “catch” someone in the wrong. Regular check-ins monitor progress and progress towards goals. The importance of growing professionally and improving CBA is a consistent goal for everyone to achieve. CBA achieves their mission and vision when everyone is growing and being held accountable for that growth.
Culture by Design
The culture at CBA does not just happen. This is the most important part of understanding culture. An organization will have a culture, however, the culture that people really want will only occur if it is planned. The strategies that happen each day reflect the culture, but culture will always be more important than strategy. The organization sets the standard through planning, strategizing, implementing, and reflection. Culture can be designed and should be designed by the institution. This design leads to mission and vision statements, relationships, intentionality, and accountability to make sure it happens. The process must be authentic and real so that everyone can buy-in and make something truly special.
Kendall Terry is the assistant director at Clayton-Bradley Academy in Maryville, TN. With degrees in biological education and executive leadership, Kendall believes, “It is time to reimagine education in a way that can truly inspire students to become lifelong learners with the skills to get them to their next step in life.”
Clayton-Bradley Academy is an independent PreK-12th grade STEM school in Maryville, TN. It was founded by parents and educators committed to designing a different kind of school. This small, year-round school offers students a nurturing place to excel through “being-there” experiences, creative project based learning and real-world applications.