Rethinking the Role of the Teacher with Dr. Greg Goins

Anna and Jordan talk with Dr. Greg Goins about the role of the teacher in the classroom.
By 
The Liveschool Team
 | 
October 5, 2022

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

In this interview, Dr. Greg Goins, the Director of Educational Leadership for Georgetown College, joins us to talk about what he's learned from a lifetime in education.

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

quote icon

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

No items found.

About the Event

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

Register Now

About the Event

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

About the Presenter

You know what they teamwork makes the dream work. These articles have been written by the wonderful members of our team.

In this interview, Dr. Greg Goins, the Director of Educational Leadership for Georgetown College, joins us to talk about what he's learned from a lifetime in education.

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

All Reward Ideas for Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Class Pet
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Talk Time
Grades 6-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Snacks
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Hat Pass
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Snack Party
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Drop Lowest Quiz
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Positive Note or Call Home
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Meet the Teacher
Grades K-8
School
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Talent Show. 🎤
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Video Game Rewards
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Tutor
Grades 6-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Class Jobs
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Classroom DJ
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Free Dress
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Host a Virtual Party. 🎶
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Decades Party
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY

All Reward Ideas for Elementary School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Pen Pouch
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Final Fridays
Grades K-8
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Dance Party
Grades K-12
Student
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Stickers
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Field Trip
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Extra Recess
Grades K-5
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Books
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
STEM Field Day
Grades K-8
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
School Supplies & Merch
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Snacks
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Meet the Teacher
Grades K-8
School
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Extra Computer Games
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Design the Bulletin Board
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Show & Tell
Grades K-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Movie Posters
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY

All Event Ideas for Schools

All Free Reward Ideas for Schools

🎉
👑
🎁
Blood Drive
🎉
👑
🎁
Homework Pass
🎉
👑
🎁
Classroom DJ
🎉
👑
🎁
Play Games
🎉
👑
🎁
Student Messenger
🎉
👑
🎁
School Assembly
🎉
👑
🎁
Meme Party
🎉
👑
🎁
Locker Choice
🎉
👑
🎁
Drop Lowest Quiz
🎉
👑
🎁
Class Jobs
🎉
👑
🎁
Dance Party

All Reward Ideas for High School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Movie Night
Grades 9-12
Student
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Snacks
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Holiday Delivery
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Kickback Vibes
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Positive Note or Call Home
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
School Supplies & Merch
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Music Fest
Grades 9-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Anime Themed Party
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Hat Pass
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Podcast
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Wild ‘N Out High School Edition
Grades 9-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Video Game Rewards
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Art Contest
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Movie Posters
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Silly School Leader
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free

All Reward Ideas for Middle School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Old School Cookout
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Dance Party
Grades K-12
Student
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Hat Pass
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Pie a Teacher
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Loudspeaker Shoutout
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
STEM Field Day
Grades K-8
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Certificate of Achievement
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Holidays Around the World
Grades K-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Dress Up or Down Day
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Free Dress
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Design the Bulletin Board
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Be a Comedian.
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Student Messenger
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Board Game Party
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Books
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Gift Cards
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Deluxe

All Student Reward & Incentive Ideas

💰
🎨
School Assembly
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Trip to the Treasure Box
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Digital Escape Rooms
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Privilege
Deluxe
💰
🎨
School Spirit Day
Grades K-12
School
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Backpack
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
💰
🎨
Gift Cards
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Deluxe
💰
🎨
Partner Work
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Design the Bulletin Board
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Silly Science Experiments
Grades K-5
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Teacher Serenade
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Donate $1
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Tech Time
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Student Spotlight Board
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Sports Tickets
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
💰
🎨
Silly School Leader
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Lunch With the Teacher
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Free

All Virtual Reward Ideas for Schools

🎉
👑
🎁
Host a Virtual Party. 🎶
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Donate $1
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Positive Note or Call Home
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Classroom DJ
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Stickers
Grades K-5
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Brain Break
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Digital Escape Rooms
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Privilege
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Podcast
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Show & Tell
Grades K-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Student Spotlight Board
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Extra Computer Games
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Certificate of Achievement
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Field Trip
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Talent Show. 🎤
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Event
Free
See all Rewards

Want more ideas?

Rewards that Rock 🎸 has 100+ rewards, incentives, and event ideas to build your school culture.
Find Rewards
Learn more about the author, 
The Liveschool Team
 

In this interview, Dr. Greg Goins, the Director of Educational Leadership for Georgetown College, joins us to talk about what he's learned from a lifetime in education.

Dr. Goins originally worked in the newspaper industry but, like many of us, was called into education as a coach at first. He went from coaching high school basketball and substitute teaching all the way to lead schools and eventually leading districts as a Superintendent in Illinois. 

Dr. Goins now works to prepare the next generation of leaders through the leadership program at Georgetown College, his work with the KASA organization, and his own show, the Reimagine Schools Podcast.

This conversation was originally featured on our podcast The Flywheel Effect, which you can listen to here or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Identifying and Defining School Culture

What stands out as the strongest indicators of good school culture to you?

You know, culture is interesting to me. Anytime you have a new coach that's hired, whether it's an NFL football coach or a college coach, the first thing they said during that first press conference is we're going to come in and change the culture. You take this magic wand and you can fix everything overnight. In a sporting sense, it's usually related to losing. How can we get back on a winning track? 

What do we have to change to find success? I've been doing this long enough, I can walk into a school and within 10 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what your school culture is just by how I'm greeted in the office, just how people interact with me. In my mind, culture is a feeling. It takes time and I describe it more as a big puzzle. So if you think about 100 puzzle pieces, there's a lot to designing a really strong school culture. 

But for me, it's still all about feeling. 

  • How do you make people feel when they walk into the building? 
  • How do you support teachers? 
  • How do they feel working with the school administration? 
  • How do kids do? Do they feel loved, and they feel supported? 
  • How do people in that community feel when they come into your building?

Do they feel like it's a place in which they have a voice, and they have an opportunity to participate? So all those things kind of go together. 

But I think a lot of times, especially young administrators make the mistake of coming in and saying we're going to change the culture. They're really not sure what that means, because they haven't spent enough time in the district. You have to spend a lot of time talking to folks. You really have to look both internally and externally. 

If you really want to know what people think about your school you should go to a local coffee shop and spend about half an hour listening to people talk about the school. A lot of times we are afraid to have those conversations because we don't know what rabbit hole we're gonna go down. But it's very important to get that external perception to understand how people feel about their local school and their communities.

I think you also have to honor all the things that have happened before your arrival when you come to a new job in a new school. When people begin talking about school culture, I think the perception is that everything is wrong. So I'm going to come in, save the day, and fix it. And I think that's a little disrespectful to the people that have worked in that school for long periods of time. 

But we know that there are good things and great things happening in a lot of different schools around the country, and there's always room for improvement. And there are always different areas in which you can make sizable differences in terms of improving your culture. 

But it's a process it's not something that's going to happen the first week, the first month, maybe not even the first year. The big mistake a lot of people make is throwing a fresh coat of paint and some inspirational messages on the wall. That isn’t necessarily going to get it, it's going to take a lot of work.

And you're going to have to take a deep dive into some of the real challenges: 

  • Do a root cause analysis to determine what exactly is the problem. 
  • How are we going to fix some of these things? 
  • What can we fix pretty quickly? 
  • Which problems are going to take some time?

But I think we really have to be careful when we talk about changing school culture as a new leader because I believe you need to shift the conversation to what are the things that we do really well. And what are the things that really need some improvement?

You have to have the mindset that when you walk into a new job, there are really good things that are there and already in place. The goal then shifts to moving from good to great. So you start having those conversations from that perspective.

The sky isn’t always falling. Everything is not always terrible based on test scores and graduation rates and whatever other nonsensical thing we're trying to measure school success with.

Start by affirming that there are really good things happening here. Now how can we take it to the next level, because we can always get better? 

And that's through building relationships with people. I can tell pretty quickly, who the best teachers are in the building just by how they interact with kids, and how they are at building relationships.

You might have the most outstanding content knowledge in the building. But you have to talk with kids and relate to them on their level.

I always tell new teachers, you're teaching kids not content, the content will be part of what you're doing. But at the end of the day, kids have to come first. 

And if you can't build a relationship with each and every kid in your classroom, then you're probably going to have a long school year.

What would you say to School Culture Leaders?

You get to talk to a lot of aspiring leaders in your role. If you could point them in one direction, and ask them to work on one thing,  where would you point them?

I think the biggest rock we need to lift is the role of the classroom teacher. I go back to when I first taught as a high school English teacher back in 1995. I lectured for 52 minutes each period, all day. Then I went and coached basketball in the afternoon, and did whatever else I did in extracurriculars after that. By the end of the day, I had lost my voice. 

And if the adults are the ones that are doing all the talking and doing all the preparation, then how can we expect kids to take more ownership of their own learning? 

So we must put teachers in a position to think differently about their roles. Information is a commodity, every student has all the information they need at their fingertips. If you have 25 kids, they all have a Chromebook. 

If they can Google something real quickly, or ask Siri, it wasn't a very good question to start with anyway. 

So you have to change the way you prepare, change what your goals are, we have to get kids more involved, give them more ownership, put them in a position to be more collaborative, and exercise critical thinking skills. 

I saw a statistic the other day that kids forget everything they've been told during a typical school day, within three days. So if your plan is to lecture on Monday and Tuesday and give a test on Friday, you're in big trouble, because those kids aren't going to remember it.

So I think that's the big rock we need to lift. Teacher ed programs need to do a better job of shifting the role of the teacher and school leaders need to be willing to have these conversations.

It's going to be scary because it's different. We think about the traditional school model and what that looks like. But this is a different time, technology's changed the game. We have to put kids in a position to take much more ownership of what they're doing in the classroom.

I love the start of a new school year when I see all these teachers on social media, they're so excited about coming back to school. Which is great, but they're talking about all the things they want to buy to decorate the room. And that's great. I love the excitement and the enthusiasm there. 

But I think we also need to rethink the space a little bit, that needs to be a shared space, your classroom is a shared space, it's not just something that just the teacher wants to decorate, and make that the teacher space, it needs to be a space for all the kids. 

So I love it when I talk with teachers that give kids the opportunity to be co-designers:

  • Ask them to help decide what the class is going to look like. 
  • Ask them what they want. 
  • Ask them how they want to decorate the classroom to make it feel more like home.

And I think in terms of school culture, we have to really shift the mindset to change the space. It's not just the teacher space, it belongs to everybody. So that would be my advice for a lot of teachers out there that are excited about starting the new school year and getting into the classroom as quickly as possible.

Maybe a simple activity is that the first couple of days of school you give them a camera, they probably already have their iPhones with them, and give them the freedom and the time to take pictures of each other. To walk around the school and make funny videos or whatever it is they want to do. Create a space for them to share that in the classroom too. 

Because they're going to be in that room for a long period of time, and it is going to become a second home. That's why I'm so big on flexible seating, get rid of all these hard chairs and these desks that a lot of the kids can't even fit in. Bring some tables and chairs and some flexible seating options. Bring in a loveseat or a couch or a floatable device that you would use in the backyard pool. 

Give kids a chance to relax and enjoy the classroom environment. 

I really think classrooms need to look more like your local Starbucks and they do you now. It can be a very depressing place to spend all day. Why not make it fun and enjoyable for the kids?

I rarely learn things myself sitting at the kitchen table, I'm usually in my recliner or laying on the floor or on the treadmill. With technology, you can really learn anytime, anywhere. So I think we need to reflect that in our classrooms as well.

Moving The Flywheel

Can you share an example of a small cultural win that gathered momentum and created a big impact?

I think the biggest change that I've been involved with and I see a lot is just creating a culture where teachers have the freedom to take the risk. 

I call it a “green light” culture. 

Create a culture of “Yes”. So if a teacher comes to you, and says they want to try flexible seating. We want to do A, B, and C. It's really easy to say no, and just dismiss it. 

But if you really create that green light culture, and they feel like they can take some ownership in what's going to happen in their classroom, that goes a long way to not only building school culture but also leading to those big levers of change.

Because they know that it's a safe place. It's okay to fail. 

And I used to tell teachers all the time, if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. I was the king of pilot projects. I was doing PBL and flexible seating, and I had a maker space. If you think about the business world, a lot of time and money is invested in research and development. But in education, we can't do those things.

You can't become an innovator if you're not willing to take big risks. 

And creating that green light culture is so important. You know, let them do those things. Let them try. I always tell people, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You're going to reboot, you're going to make some adjustments, and you're going to try again, but there's going to be a learning process. But it isn’t just for us, the kids are going to learn to that not everything's perfect too. Success is not a straight line, it never has been. So zigzag all you can and all you want to really become the most innovative school that you can.

I think it's also important to redefine what success looks like not only at the school level or district level but in your classroom. That can be a difficult conversation. If you're in that mindset, that old traditional way of thinking that success is only about how many kids get an A on the quiz or the test or how many kids are on the honor roll… you're losing sight of what's important. 

So we have to put them in a position to really understand, to problem solve, how to collaborate, how to really think more critically about solving some of these wicked problems that we need to solve on a daily basis in our society. So we need to provide a framework in which they feel like they can take those really big risks, and it's okay to fail. 

Can you give an example of a culture change that failed?

I think any effort is going to be a success. It may not be the end result you had originally planned for, but you're going to get something valuable out of that it's going to help you improve the next time. I think the only time that I have failed personally, or that I see school leaders fail, in terms of trying to change the culture of a building, is when it's a very top-down approach. 

I can provide resources for teachers early on and provide them with opportunities to have those conversations in the building, and then help facilitate those conversations as a coach and mentor along the way. 

The real success begins when they start coming to you and say we really want to try project-based learning after Christmas because we read this book, or we're doing this research, and we're excited about it. And if you can get a few people to try it, that builds momentum. 

I always say it only takes one match to start a pretty big fire. And that's how you build momentum in your school, and you get people excited about things. 

But the worst thing you can do is give a directive and tell people this is what they're going to do because you're going to lose them pretty quickly and pretty fast.

Making a Lasting Impact

How do you enact change that can scale and sustain?

That's a challenging question. And anytime, you're talking about leading school change it’s best to remember that if it was easy, it probably would have already been done. So you really have to think in terms of creating situations in which teachers can have success. 

Once they do have success, recognize what they're doing, and create opportunities for other teachers to go in and make classroom visits and be a fly on the wall and see what that looks like. It all goes back to that research and development culture. 

As soon as you start PBL kids are going to love it. The teachers are going to love it, you're going to have other people from the district probably going to drive over there and peek in your classroom and see what all the excitement is all about.

That's how you build momentum. 

That's how you begin to sustain some change once you get people excited about something and then you add another classroom here and another classroom there. And before long, you know half the classrooms in your building are full-blown PBL. So now you have this big shift in your school, if you can get two-thirds of the teachers doing something innovative in your school, then eventually that's going to become the norm. 

That's going to become the culture of your building. But again, that takes time. That's not something that's going to happen overnight. But you have to celebrate every small success. If you maintain that, and you have that green light culture, eventually you're going to have sustained success. 

Before you know it, you're going to have principals from other districts calling you to say they hear great things are going on in your school district, then they want to bring 10 Teachers down on Friday to look around. Now you're really rolling because the word gets out that you're doing some really cool things.

That's going to blow up your school culture, and really help teachers feel like they're doing something valuable and important for kids.

It just starts with one classroom. If you're implementing project-based learning, then it doesn't have to be this huge school-wide initiative. If you are new to the building then you need to find those teachers that are already doing really innovative things. 

So there's probably a teacher that's already doing a version of PBL, or who's super passionate about it, and you need to empower them to just do more of that and become the expert. And yes, it takes more time. But it's going to be done so much better and authentically and with so much more buy-in and enthusiasm from just about everyone. 

I think when we talk about change, we can all agree, that change is difficult. But I describe change the same way, my wife and I have a storage unit that is stacked to the very top. You can hardly open the door. I can't tell you how many conversations we've had about it this week. And we really need to go over there and clean up that storage unit. And it's like, oh my gosh, I really don't want to do anything with that. 

So it's a little overwhelming, and you don't want to do it. But if we decide we're gonna go over there, and we're each gonna grab a box and take it home. Then we're gonna go through stuff and maybe source some things, but if you could bring one box home at a time you can slowly start chipping away at it. It's the same thing with leading change in a school district, just start in one classroom, or two classrooms and build some momentum and get some things going. 

Before long you're gonna find success, you're gonna see the floor in the storage unit, and you're gonna get excited about maybe doing something different. When things are hard, we just don't want to do it. We find excuses not to do things. 

But if we're ever going to make a long-term change, we have to attack it one box at a time.

All Reward Ideas for Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Game-Based Simulation Learning
Grades 9-12
Class/House
Event
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Holidays Around the World
Grades K-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Brain Break
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Final Fridays
Grades K-8
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Dance Party
Grades K-12
Student
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Sports Tickets
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Be a Comedian.
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Host a Virtual Party. 🎶
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Free Dress
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Trip to the Treasure Box
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
The A-List
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
“Let's Make A Difference Week"
Grades 9-12
Class/House
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Theme Party
Grades K-8
Class/House
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Hat Pass
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free

All Reward Ideas for Elementary School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Career Day
Grades 3-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Stickers
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Dance Party
Grades K-12
Student
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Extra Computer Games
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Silly Science Experiments
Grades K-5
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Video Game Rewards
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Meet the Teacher
Grades K-8
School
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
School Spirit Day
Grades K-12
School
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
School Assembly
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Sweatshirt
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Line Leader
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Class Jobs
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Brain Break
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Donate $1
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free

All Event Ideas for Schools

💰
🎨
Meme Party
💰
🎨
Art Contest
💰
🎨
Movie Night
💰
🎨
Dance Party
💰
🎨
Family Feast
💰
🎨
Game Week
💰
🎨
Fake The Funk
💰
🎨
Amazing Race
💰
🎨
Karaoke Night
💰
🎨
Glow Party

All Free Reward Ideas for Schools

🎉
👑
🎁
Homework Pass
🎉
👑
🎁
Camp Read Away
🎉
👑
🎁
School Assembly
🎉
👑
🎁
Seating Choice
🎉
👑
🎁
Parking Spots
🎉
👑
🎁
Art Contest
🎉
👑
🎁
Drop Lowest Quiz
🎉
👑
🎁
Student Messenger
🎉
👑
🎁
Meet the Teacher
🎉
👑
🎁
Meme Party
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Field Trip

All Reward Ideas for High School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Snack Party
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Silent Disco
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Movie Posters
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Fake The Funk
Grades 9-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Holidays Around the World
Grades K-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Picnic Lunch
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Parking Spots
Grades 9-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
School Assembly
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Firebird of the Month
Grades K-12
Student
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
School Dance
Grades 9-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
The Love Soiree
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Field Trip
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Decades Party
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Career Day
Grades 3-12
School
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Video Game Rewards
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY

All Reward Ideas for Middle School Students

🎉
👑
🎁
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Awards Show Afterparty
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Family Feast
Grades K-8
Class/House
Event
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Pen Pouch
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Seating Choice
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Pie a Teacher
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Brain Break
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Tech Time
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Digital Escape Rooms
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Privilege
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Silly School Leader
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Meme Party
Grades 6-12
School
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Sweatshirt
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Design the Bulletin Board
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Theme Party
Grades K-8
Class/House
Event
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Board Game Party
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Hat Pass
Grades 6-12
Student
Privilege
Free

All Student Reward & Incentive Ideas

💰
🎨
Virtual Field Trip
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Lunch Concert
Grades 6-8
Class/House
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Toys
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Sports Tickets
Grades 3-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
💰
🎨
Picnic Lunch
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Class Book
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Line Leader
Grades K-5
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Loudspeaker Shoutout
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Backpack
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Deluxe
💰
🎨
Design the Bulletin Board
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Free Dress
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Early Lunch Dismissal
Grades 9-12
Student
Privilege
Free
💰
🎨
Stickers
Grades K-8
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Video Game Rewards
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
💰
🎨
Holiday Delivery
Grades K-12
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY

All Virtual Reward Ideas for Schools

🎉
👑
🎁
Social Media Reporter
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Talent Show. 🎤
Grades 3-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Brain Break
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Positive Note or Call Home
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Stickers
Grades K-5
Student
Tangible
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Donate $1
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Low Cost/DIY
🎉
👑
🎁
Podcast
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Teacher Q&A
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Show & Tell
Grades K-8
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Classroom DJ
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Host a Virtual Party. 🎶
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Event
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Extra Computer Games
Grades 3-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Digital Escape Rooms
Grades 6-12
Class/House
Privilege
Deluxe
🎉
👑
🎁
Certificate of Achievement
Grades K-12
Student
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Virtual Field Trip
Grades K-12
Class/House
Privilege
Free
🎉
👑
🎁
Morning Meeting Leader
Grades 3-8
Student
Privilege
Free
See all Rewards

Want more ideas?

Rewards that Rock 🎸 has 100+ rewards, incentives, and event ideas to build your school culture.
Find Rewards
Learn more about the author, 
The Liveschool Team
 

Subscribe via Email

Receive the best school culture resources monthly to inspire your planning.

Related Resources

-