Shifting Culture: Power and Value

September 2, 2015

Editor’s Note: Mark Gardner, NBCT, is a high school English teacher in southwest Washington state working in a hybrid role that also allows him to work on professional development experiences for teachers.The views expressed in this blog are his own.

In July, David B. Cohen shared his reflections about “Shifting the Culture” and how National Board Certification can be part of leveraging a shift.

Considering my own experience, the mechanisms of a district’s culture shifts can be a bit mysterious, but I believe they are rooted in who leads, who learns, and who we pay attention to.

Who Leads
Last spring, I was exchanging emails with my Deputy Superintendent, my supervisor for the teacher-leadership half of my hybrid role. In one message, he signed off with I’ll get right back to you after I finish teaching this Algebra class at the middle school.

He does this every so often, to stay in touch and get his “kid fix,” since sitting in an office or always dealing with adults can make the distant world of the classroom seem more like theory, not practice. Not surprisingly, teachers in my district talk about this Deputy Supe differently. Many of us have had the chance to see him teach, and others have heard about it, though at first it was like some incredible urban legend.

Who leads us matters. The previous deputy was much loved and respected, but her retirement coincided with the piling-on of new standards and instructional frameworks, new teacher evaluations and new standardized tests. Today, teachers in my district appreciate being able to see a leader who works hard to stay connected and real. This is the kind of leader people follow by choice, not by default. Instead of being compelled to follow because he’s in a higher pay grade, people follow because they see his integrity and believe in what he represents.

Who Learns (and From Whom)
In my district, opportunities for staff learning are becoming more frequent, more accessible, and more often led by colleagues. Rather than hire an outside consultant or trainer, we’ve made the conscious choice to invest in our teachers. We provide time, compensation, and support for teachers who “teach teachers,” and it is bargained into our contract that teachers are paid for their time learning from their peers.

When teachers share their expertise–and are duly compensated for such leadership–we foster a culture of learning. This intentionality, collaboration, instructional risk-taking, and appreciation of innovation, occurring in a community of learners, all help define our culture as one where teachers are empowered, rather than subjected to the whims of far-off decision-makers.

Who We Pay Attention To
My building historically had a culture of fear– one step out of line and the administration would cut you down. I was mired in that culture, engaged in the game of telephone where rumors and assumptions passed freely and mutated rapidly. In my social circles, distrust festered and frustration simmered. At the center of it all: the principal.

Then early in my tenure as teacher on special assignment, I noticed that people were (to my shock) speaking positively about my principal. It wasn’t that they had suddenly changed their perspective; rather, it was that I had never considered another perspective might exist. I soon realized that people whom I assumed shared my frustration and distrust actually didn’t. Then I started to consider that maybe I didn’t really feel as frustrated and distrustful as I had convinced myself I was. I recognized that I had been part of creating and sustaining my own micro-culture of fear that I had projected outward through blind assumptions.

Fast forward two years to a tense PD planning meeting with my principal. He kept insisting that the staff would resist what we had planned. I insisted that on the contrary, people were eager and willing to follow our lead. He was adamant: the culture was negative. Finally, I challenged him to tally in his mind exactly who on staff he thought would resist, who was so unwilling to cooperate that it was worth charting our whole building’s course to dodge their dissatisfaction.

He could think of eight names (and some only made the list because they tend to sit next to certain people). At the time, our building was staffed by 98 teachers. The rest, he conceded, would probably not only row along, but be filled with great ideas about where to go next. This decision paid off: when teachers saw that we were about moving forward, literally dozens of teachers stepped forward to not only participate, but lead.

Power and Value
Careful consideration of who leads, who learns, and who we pay attention to, is crucial for shifting our cultures at the building or district level. The keys to a culture shift rest in who is given power and what is given value. Our Deputy Superintendent demonstrates the value of the work of teaching. Our professional learning system both empowers teachers and exemplifies the value of learning. And last, when leaders realize that the squeaky wheel doesn’t always deserve the grease, it communicates to the masses that the rest of us matter, too.

Mark Gardner, NBCT

Mark Gardner is a National Board Certified High School English Teacher living and working in a transition suburban-rural school district in southwest Washington state. After teaching full time in the classroom for ten years, and three years in a hybrid teaching/teacher-leadership role, he transitioned into a full-time role designing and launching his district’s K-12 New Teacher Induction and Mentorship program. In the 2016-17 school year, he will also be serving as the president of his local teachers’ association. Mark writes for the group blog Stories from School ( which is sponsored by Washington state’s Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). Mark works within his own district to develop sustainable teacher leadership pathways and professional development. Follow Mark on twitter: @mdwyg.