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Culture Does Not Fall From the Sky

There is no question that we are at a crossroads in education around the world. There is the potential to positively reshape and reaffirm the basic tenets of education such that all students benefit from it. Successful schools, both academically and ethically, have at their core a rich and positive school culture.

There is no real reform without family engagement and now add to that, no real reform without a permanent shift in school culture. Research case studies continue to support the notion that creating a demanding culture that includes relational trust and a positive school climate for students and their families is essential for continuous improvement Re-culturization is much more important than reorganization, with which we as educators seem to be enamored.

The Five Simple Principles™ to engage every family start at what we believe to be the most critical component of the ability of schools to engage families and also promote their efficacy. Shaping a culture that embraces families will ensure that the engagement will be consistent, permeate the organization and be sustained over time.

So, What is Culture?

School culture has at its core the historically transmitted patterns of meaning that include norms, values, beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, traditions, and myths and how well these ideas are understood or engrained in the members of the organization. Simply put then, culture shapes what people think and how they act.

Generally speaking, we know that while all schools are different, many, if not most, schools continue to exist as isolated places where school staff, to a large degree, work in isolation of families. When determining how to engage every family, collaborative cultures are inclusive of the important and trusting relationships between school staff and families, which promotes the important ideas of collegiality and teacher, student and family efficacy. However, the process to attain this collaborative culture must be real and organic and not contrived.

The Importance of Including Culture

For as many years as researchers have been writing about family engagement and its importance to overall student achievement and school improvement, schools have been desperately trying to engage every family, with less than stellar results. Researchers have offered a number of strategies for schools to implement so that more families, especially those that are traditionally disengaged with their children’s education, can become engaged and attached to the school so that their child’s learning improves. While there is no argument that progress has been made with regard to understanding the importance of family engagement and attaining the empirical evidence that it is indeed important, to suggest that real family engagement is engrained in the culture of schools globally, is simply not accurate. Why then have we had so much trouble with successfully infusing family engagement practices with schools? The answer lies in one word: culture.

Initiatives do not last because the culture of organizations is never changed to embrace and sustain the idea. Ideas, objectives, initiatives and strategies that represent a fundamental antithesis toward the existing culture will always succumb to the existing culture unless significant work is done to augment, expand and change the culture to embrace the change.

Where to Start with a Culture that Engages Every Family

In order to once and for all allow family engagement to be the important component to school reform that research has proven it can be, changing the culture of the school to be accepting and inclusive of family engagement is critical.

As a beginning, ask your colleagues the following questions:

  • What do I think about family engagement?
  • Will family engagement work at this school? Why or why not?
  • What is my role in promoting family engagement at our school?
  • Am I willing to alter my practice and redirect time, resources, and energy to family engagement to bring about more achievement of my students?

These simple questions get to the core of beliefs about family engagement. More often than not, educators create opinions and perceptions of family engagement based on prior experience. If the majority of interactions with families are negative, then it stands to reason that teachers and school staff, over time, will develop negative perceptions of families. How many times has a principal of a school started the school year by asking all teachers to make five positive phone calls a week? And, how many of those phone calls were really made after the first week or two of school?

In order to create a culture for families, a thorough understanding of what culture is and how it impacts organizations is critical. Then and only then can an organization move forward to create a culture that is truly reflective of valuing the partnership and empowerment of all families.

If we truly want families engaged with schools and the academic lives of their children then we must work to change the culture of schools so that the process of educating children is more humanized. If we are to succeed, we have to be responsive to the individual, regardless of their background of origin. This change, however, requires those involved to understand and desire the need for the change itself and take ownership in the process

A school that can measure and assess progress with shared goals, shared power, respect for human dignity and cooperation is well on its way to reshaping their culture forever.