Cultivating a Championship Culture in Independent Schools: Insights from Ubuntu 

Independent schools, in an increasingly competitive educational landscape, face the challenge of fostering not only academic excellence but also creating an environment that nurtures collaboration, resilience, and continuous improvement. This article offers a summary of many cultures that exist in schools and their differences and how to shift your school to a championship culture, guided by the philosophy of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu, a concept originating from Southern Africa, translates to “I am because we are.” This philosophy underscores the importance of mutual respect, shared responsibility, and community interconnectedness. Within the context of an independent school like CDS, Ubuntu lays the foundation for a championship culture that fosters continuous improvement, resilience, and collective success.

We will examine this transformation using Carolina Day School (CDS) as a case study, drawing inspiration from the Boston Celtics’ championship success story.

During the 2007-2008 NBA season, the Boston Celtics, under the leadership of coach Doc Rivers, provided a compelling example of Ubuntu in action. Rivers used the Ubuntu philosophy to unify his star-studded team, which included Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, resulting in the following strategies:

  • Establishing Unity: Rivers used Ubuntu to foster a strong bond among his players, emphasizing the importance of functioning as a cohesive unit rather than a group of individual stars.
  • Fostering Mutual Respect: Embodying the spirit of Ubuntu, Rivers promoted respect among his players, encouraging them to appreciate each other’s unique skills and contributions.
  • Promoting Selflessness: Rivers advocated for selflessness, asking his players to prioritize the team’s success over personal glory, reinforcing the Ubuntu ethos of collective good.
  • Creating a Shared Purpose: By instilling a shared purpose among his players—to win the NBA championship—Rivers further unified the team. Each player understood their role in achieving this collective goal.

The team’s wholehearted embrace of the Ubuntu philosophy culminated in winning the NBA championship that year. The Boston Celtics’ success serves as a potent analogy for fostering a championship culture in independent schools, particularly exemplified by our case study, Carolina Day School.

Before embarking on CDS’s journey of transformation, it’s essential to understand the various levels of school culture:

Toxic Culture
A toxic school culture can be defined as an environment that negatively impacts the morale, performance, and overall well-being of students, faculty, and staff within a school setting. It is often characterized by the following attributes:

  • Poor Communication: In a toxic school culture, communication is either insufficient, unclear, or one-sided. This often leads to misunderstandings, misinformation, and a lack of trust within the school community.
  • Lack of Collaboration: Schools with a toxic culture often lack teamwork and collaboration. Instead, staff and students may operate in silos, working independently rather than coming together to share ideas or solve problems.
  • Fear and Intimidation: Toxic school cultures often have an undercurrent of fear or intimidation. This can stem from authoritarian leadership, bullying among students or staff, or the fear of retaliation for voicing concerns or making mistakes.
  • Negativity and Complacency: In a toxic environment, negativity and complacency can become the norm. This can manifest as constant complaining, resistance to change, or a lack of motivation or engagement from students and staff.
  • Lack of Support and Respect: Toxic school cultures often lack respect and support for individuals’ rights, ideas, and well-being. This can lead to feelings of being undervalued, unappreciated, and disrespected.
  • High Stress Levels and Burnout: Schools with toxic cultures often have high levels of stress and burnout among faculty and staff. This can result from excessive workloads, lack of resources, lack of recognition, or a lack of balance between work and personal life.
  • Low Morale and High Turnover: These are often signs of a toxic culture. When staff and students do not feel satisfied, appreciated, or happy, they may disengage, underperform, or choose to leave the school altogether.
  • Inequity and Bias: A toxic culture can also be characterized by systemic inequities and bias, where certain groups are favored or disadvantaged based on factors like race, gender, social status, or special needs. This leads to unfair practices and can greatly harm the school community’s cohesion and sense of justice.

Competitive Culture
A competitive school culture is characterized by an environment where students, teachers, and even administrators are constantly driven to outperform one another for recognition, rewards, or resources. The focus is often on individual achievement rather than collective success. Here are some key characteristics of a competitive school culture

  • Emphasis on Individual Achievement: In a competitive school culture, the primary focus is on individual achievement. Students are often evaluated based on their personal accomplishments, and teachers may be assessed based on their individual performance or the performance of their students.
  • Competition for Resources and Recognition: Resources, rewards, and recognition are often seen as zero-sum – if one person or group gets them, others do not. This can lead to a culture where individuals or groups are pitted against each other to earn these limited resources.
  • High-Stress Environment: The constant drive to outperform others can create a high-stress environment. Students may feel pressure to achieve top grades or be the best in their extracurricular activities, while teachers may feel pressure to outperform their peers.
  • Winner-Takes-All Mentality: In a competitive culture, success is often seen as binary – either you’re a winner, or you’re not. This can lead to a fear of failure and discourage risk-taking or creativity.
  • Inequity: Competitive school cultures can sometimes exacerbate inequities, as those with more resources or support are often better positioned to succeed in a competitive environment.
  • Limited Collaboration: Because everyone is focused on individual success, there may be less collaboration and teamwork. Individuals may be reluctant to share ideas or resources for fear of giving a competitive advantage to others.

Congenial Culture
A congenial school culture is one where the interactions among students, teachers, and administrators are characterized by friendliness, courtesy, and respect. However, the focus is primarily on maintaining harmonious relationships rather than on achieving academic or strategic objectives. Here are some key attributes of a congenial school culture:

  • Politeness and Civility: People in a congenial school culture are typically polite and courteous in their interactions. There is an emphasis on maintaining a positive and cordial atmosphere.
  • Personal Comfort: This type of culture often values individual comfort and happiness, sometimes to the extent that it may take precedence over academic or institutional progress.
  • Harmony: A congenial culture values peaceful coexistence and tries to minimize conflict. Disagreements may be avoided to maintain the status quo and keep relationships smooth.
  • Individualism: Schools with congenial cultures may focus on individual effort and achievement, rather than collective goals and collaboration. Teachers may operate in their classrooms independently, without much coordination or collaboration with colleagues.
  • Lack of Constructive Feedback: Due to the desire to maintain pleasant relationships, constructive criticism, and candid feedback may be rare. This could potentially hinder professional growth and improvement.
  • Friendliness: In congenial school cultures, individuals are generally friendly and warm to each other. However, this friendliness may not necessarily translate into effective teamwork or a focus on shared objectives.

Collaborative Culture
A collaborative school culture is one in which all members of the school community – students, teachers, administrators, and parents – actively work together to achieve common goals and improve the educational experience. This culture emphasizes teamwork, shared responsibility, and open communication. Here are some key characteristics of a collaborative school culture:

  • Shared Vision and Goals: Everyone in the school understands and commits to a shared vision and set of goals. These shared objectives guide decision-making and actions within the school.
  • Teamwork: Collaborative school cultures emphasize the importance of working together. Teachers collaborate with each other and with administrators, students work together on group projects, and parents may team up with educators to support student learning.
  • Open Communication: In a collaborative culture, open and honest communication is valued. Everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas, concerns, and feedback, and everyone’s voice is heard and respected.
  • Shared Decision Making: Rather than a few people making all the decisions, a collaborative school culture involves many stakeholders in the decision-making process. This could include teachers, students, and parents, depending on the issue at hand.
  • Professional Learning Communities: Collaborative cultures often involve professional learning communities, where teachers work together to plan lessons, share best practices, and support each other’s professional growth.
  • Trust and Respect: A collaborative school culture is characterized by a high degree of trust and mutual respect. Everyone values each other’s roles, skills, and contributions to the school community.
  • Continuous Improvement: In a collaborative culture, everyone is committed to continuous improvement. This could involve ongoing professional development for teachers, regular revisions to the curriculum based on student needs, and continual assessment of school policies and procedures.

Championship Culture
A championship school culture is one where the community shares a commitment to excellence, teamwork, resilience, and continuous improvement, much like a championship sports team. The goal is not only to achieve high standards but to build an environment that fosters personal growth, collaboration, and a sense of shared purpose. Here are some key characteristics of a championship school culture:

  • Shared Vision: A championship culture starts with a clear, shared vision. Everyone in the school community understands this vision and knows their role in making it a reality.
  • Pursuit of Excellence: Championship cultures are characterized by a collective commitment to excellence. Everyone strives to do their best, not just in academics, but in all aspects of school life.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: In a championship school culture, everyone understands they’re part of a larger team. Teachers, students, administrators, and parents work together to achieve shared goals.
  • Resilience and Perseverance: Just like a championship sports team, a championship school culture values resilience and the ability to overcome adversity. Failure is seen as an opportunity for learning and growth.
  • Continuous Improvement: A championship culture involves a commitment to continuous improvement. This means regularly evaluating performance, seeking feedback, and making necessary adjustments to get better.
  • Respect and Empathy: Championship cultures are built on a foundation of mutual respect and empathy. Everyone values and appreciates the unique contributions of others, creating an inclusive and supportive environment.
  • Celebrating Success: A championship school culture also involves recognizing and celebrating success. Achievements, both big and small, are celebrated as evidence of hard work and dedication.

In essence, a championship school culture is about more than just winning or achieving high academic standards. It’s about creating an environment where everyone works together, supports each other, and strives to be their best, fostering a sense of community that extends beyond the walls of the school.

Creating a championship culture, akin to the transformation orchestrated for the Celtics by Doc Rivers, starts with the school leadership developing a clear, compelling vision that embodies Ubuntu. The vision must be effectively communicated to transform it from a mere statement to a lived reality.

Transitioning to a championship school culture is a long-term commitment that requires strategic planning and consistent effort. Here are some potential steps, spread over three years, to guide this transformation:

Year 1: Diagnosis and Planning

  • Establish a School Culture Committee: Form a committee comprising diverse stakeholders (teachers, administrators, students, parents) to assess the current culture and lead the transformation process.
  • Conduct a School Culture Audit: Use tools like surveys, focus groups, and interviews to understand the current state of the school culture. Key questions could be about relationships, communication, leadership, values, norms, and expectations.
  • Identify Key Challenges: Based on the audit, identify the key issues contributing to the toxic culture. These could include lack of communication, ineffective leadership, low morale, or high levels of stress.
  • Define a Shared Vision: With input from all stakeholders, create a clear, compelling vision for what the championship culture should look like. This vision should embody values like respect, collaboration, resilience, and continuous improvement.
  • Develop a Strategic Plan: Using the vision as a guide, develop a strategic plan outlining the specific steps to transform the school culture. The plan should include objectives, strategies, responsibilities, timelines, and evaluation metrics.

Year 2: Implementation and Training

  • Communicate the Vision and Plan: Share the vision and plan with all stakeholders. Everyone should understand the need for change, what the change involves, and their role in the process.
  • Implement Professional Development Programs: Arrange training sessions focused on fostering a championship culture. Topics might include effective communication, collaborative problem-solving, resilience-building, and embracing diversity. A tool like the 2 x 2 Feedback Protocol (which involves providing two positive feedback points and two areas of improvement to each other) can be used to promote constructive feedback and continuous improvement.
  • Promote Teamwork and Collaboration: Use techniques like Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), where educators meet regularly, share expertise, and work collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students.
  • Establish Accountability Systems: Create systems for holding everyone accountable for cultural change. This could involve performance metrics related to teamwork, communication, and other key aspects of the championship culture.

Year 3: Reinforcement and Continuous Improvement

  • Celebrate Success: Regularly recognize and celebrate achievements in transforming the school culture. This can help motivate everyone to continue their efforts and reinforce the positive changes.
  • Monitor and Adjust the Plan: Regularly evaluate progress towards the championship culture using tools like surveys and focus groups. Based on this feedback, adjust the strategic plan as needed.
  • Implement Restorative Practices: This involves focusing on mending relationships and addressing conflicts through open communication, empathy, and mutual understanding. For example, using Circle Processes (a structured dialogue process where all participants sit in a circle and each person has an equal opportunity to speak) to facilitate conflict resolution and community building.
  • Foster Student Leadership: Encourage students to take on leadership roles in promoting the championship culture. This could involve student-led initiatives, peer mentoring, or a student council.

In striving for a championship culture, Carolina Day School (CDS) is undertaking a transformation akin to the Boston Celtics under Doc Rivers’ leadership, with Ubuntu – “I am because we are” – as the guiding philosophy.

Professional development, mirroring Rivers’ focus on unity, respect, and selflessness, is critical in this journey. CDS invests in continuous and varied opportunities for staff to expand their skills, grasp the tenets of the championship culture, and internalize Ubuntu’s principles.

Within three years, CDS strategically shifted towards a championship culture. This shift, much like that of the Celtics, involved intentional planning, consistent communication, team-building, and effective feedback systems. Sustained investment in professional development is vital to further internalize this new culture, embedding Ubuntu’s principles deeply within the school’s ethos.

CDS’s commitment to continuous improvement not only fosters academic excellence but also champions resilience and shared responsibility. This transformation is reflected in specific actions taken by CDS, including:

  • Anti-bias, anti-racist training
  • Relational interviews 
  • Resources for resilience training
  • Academic performance, data analysis, professional development
  • Weekly Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) led by the instructional facilitator
  • Revised teacher evaluation tool and walkthrough implementation

The transformational journey at Carolina Day School extends beyond professional development to encompass curriculum and extracurricular programs, ensuring these components align with the Ubuntu ethos and championship culture.

Much like Doc Rivers nurtured mutual respect within the Boston Celtics, CDS employs techniques like relational interviews to cultivate an environment where every individual feels valued and an integral part of the community. This understanding and incorporation of Ubuntu principles foster an environment that champions cooperation, resilience, and shared success, crucial aspects of a championship culture.

Concrete steps taken by CDS to integrate this philosophy into curriculum and extracurricular programs include:

  • Defining the signature program: Pathways to Leadership through the Student Leadership Framework
  • Conducting a curriculum audit to align learning targets
  • Establishing accountability partners across PK-8
  • Revision of lower school progress reports 
  • Revision of learning targets 

Establishing a school improvement team composed of faculty leaders. As Carolina Day School integrates Ubuntu and the championship culture into its curriculum and extracurricular activities, it also recognizes the critical role of celebrating successes, a practice drawn from the Celtics’ championship journey.

By acknowledging achievements, the school reinforces desired attitudes and behaviors, creating a positive feedback loop that fosters continuous improvement. This cycle of success builds momentum, further driving the school’s cultural shift towards a championship mindset.

To institutionalize this recognition of success, Carolina Day School has taken several steps:

  • Creation of PK-8 Standard Operating Procedures for Alignment and Shared Vision
  • Shout-outs in weekly principal newsletter from staff and parents
  • Teacher spotlights in divisional newsletter to parents every other week
  • Highlighting tremendous academic gain in all grade levels PK-8
  • Highlighting highest ERB performance in the history of the division
  • Assigning teacher leadership roles to staff in alignment with vision and mission

Just as recognizing success is pivotal, Carolina Day School also acknowledges that transitioning to a championship culture isn’t without challenges. Resistance to change is a natural response and must be met with empathy, clear communication, and an openness to feedback.

It’s vital for the school’s leadership to embody the desired culture in their actions and decisions, upholding the principles of Ubuntu. This can build trust, encourage dialogue, and provide a blueprint for others to follow in their behaviors and attitudes.

CDS has implemented several measures to address resistance, maintain open communication, and ensure continuous feedback. These include:

  • Creating a system for feedback through weekly Principal Pages
  • Implementing 2 x 2 feedback protocol for teams with challenging dynamics
  • Facilitating student problem-solving sessions
  • Establishing teacher-led committees on areas of concern
  • Conducting “Walk and Talks” with key parent stakeholders
  • Holding relational meetings with all staff members to improve leadership transition
  • Scheduling 1-on-1 check-ins at the beginning, middle, and end of the year with administration

Navigating the intricacies of a cultural transition, while challenging, is a transformative process that Carolina Day School embraces. The rewards of this shift go beyond overcoming the hurdles and establish a rich and lasting impact on the school community.

A shift to a championship culture, underpinned by Ubuntu, not only strengthens the community fabric but also leads to increased student engagement and improved academic performance. Additionally, it enhances the school’s reputation, making it a more attractive choice for prospective students and their families.

Building a championship culture in schools is a transformative journey that requires dedication, strategic planning, and community participation. Carolina Day School’s journey, influenced by the Ubuntu philosophy and the leadership strategy of the Boston Celtics, provides a comprehensive example of this transformation.

Despite initial challenges, their efforts resulted in enhanced academic performance, reduced teacher turnover, increased enrollment, and a more cohesive and supportive school community. Schools that incorporate Ubuntu’s “I am because we are” ethos, nurturing mutual respect and unity, not only enrich their educational environment but also foster resilience, continuous improvement, and a sense of shared success.

In conclusion, adopting a championship culture is a long-term commitment, but the rewards are significant, extending beyond academic achievements to the overall wellbeing of the school community. Thus, Carolina Day School serves as an inspiring example for other independent schools aiming to create a similar championship culture.

Interested in learning more? Join us for a two-day workshop, June 24-26, 2024 in Asheville, aimed at school leaders looking to improve their school culture and teamwork using the Ubuntu philosophy — the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. This practical workshop focuses on real-world applications of feedback and conflict resolution to create a supportive, high-performing school environment. Participants will engage in direct, scenario-based activities and group discussions to develop effective leadership strategies tailored to their unique school contexts. The goal is to leave with a clear, actionable plan to implement these principles in your school, promoting unity, respect and shared success.

  • Leadership
  • Mission/Culture
  • Community Building

Lauren Evans is the lower and middle school principal at Carolina Day School. She joined CDS as the lower school principal in 2020. Her previous experience includes assistant principal, curriculum director, manager of teacher leadership at Teach for America, and special education teacher. Lauren was recognized as Asheville City School’s Principal of the Year in 2019. Lauren received a B.A. degree in English from the University of Maryland, an M.A. in learning disabilities from American University, and an M.A. in educational leadership from Queens University.

Carolina Day is a PK-12 school in Asheville, NC. Their mission is to inspire students to become innovative thinkers who communicate with intelligence and clarity, create with vision and purpose, and act with courage and compassion to confidently make a meaningful difference in the world.