Michelle Blanchet is co-author of The Startup Teacher (Times 10, 2020), co-author of Preventing Polarization (Times 10, 2023), and an educator and social entrepreneur striving to improve how we treat, train, and value our teachers. After ten years of experience working with young people, she founded the Educators’ Lab, which supports teacher-driven solutions to educational challenges. Michelle earned a master’s in international relations from Instituto de Empresa in Madrid. She has taught social studies in Switzerland and the U.S. and has presented at numerous events, including SXSWedu and TEDxLausanne. Michelle is a part of the Global Shaper Community of the World Economic Forum. She has worked with organizations like PBS Education, the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, Ashoka, and the Center for Curriculum Redesign. Follow Michelle on Twitter @educatorslab.
As the world embarks on the fifth industrial revolution, as we explore how students, teachers, and schools can infuse sustainability into their work – one thing is clear – we can only get so far if our systems hold us back.
Changing education is no easy feat. These days it seems everyone wants to change everything about education. There is so much to consider that the magnitude of the situation can leave us stagnant. Policy, standards, formal assessments, outdated teacher training, college admissions, credentials, stigmas, career pathways, parent attitudes, technology, resources, poverty – these are just a few pieces of the interconnected web that make education such a beast of a problem.
However, we do need change. Education no longer is equipping our students for a rapidly changing world, and if we want our youth to flourish, we will need to do things differently. Since we must start somewhere – and this article is more directed towards those working in our schools – we might suggest focusing on something we can hopefully nurture – our school culture.
Those that are closest to the problem are often closest to the solutions. Teachers often have incredible ideas as to how we might improve education for our students. They are the ones who can take bold new ideas, and turn them into actionable experiences for our students. Schools however need to provide the infrastructure to make change possible so those working in the building have the space, time, support, and capacity to try new things. For instance, if we want to support students as innovators, we must support teachers as innovators. This requires prioritizing innovation and implementation. It signifies developing a work culture (a school culture) conducive to change.
Topics like agility and change management might be discussed a lot in the business world but aren’t given quite as much priority in the education space. It’s not uncommon for me to hear comments that suggest teachers don’t want to make changes or that staff is resistant to new things. I often wonder if it’s a matter of “not wanting to” versus being overworked, tired and not necessarily feeling supported and empowered. I also wonder if sometimes it’s a matter of not being on the same page about which changes actually need to take place.
Teachers thrive in schools with a great work culture. Based on our work at The Educators’ Lab, we have noticed a positive school culture as being a key driver in innovation. We understand the power and impact of teachers and are often amazed by what they can do and accomplish with their students when given the trust and opportunity to do so. Moreover, we notice a difference in attitude among teachers who work in a positive school culture. They are able to find more joy in their work, and don’t see change as a threat, but rather a welcome opportunity to try something new or different.
It’s made us curious as to how we can build cultures of innovation within our schools. In a positive school culture there’s a sense of community where everyone understands a shared mission, and feels like they are actively working towards the same goals. Beyond this they are given tools and support to actually materialize ideas. When people feel listened to, are given agency, and space to grow personally and professionally they can thrive.
Anyone who’s ever worked in a school knows they each act as their own little microcosm. If we want to spark more place-based opportunities for schools to support their students and communities, we must ensure each school is equipped with an agile culture that addresses the problems and opportunities for that student body. This is especially true for a topic like sustainability where local solutions add up to help solve a very global challenge. The question is – how do we get there?
Sometimes there appears to be a disparity between how well school leaders might evaluate their school culture compared to staff evaluations. Uneven power dynamics can make it difficult to communicate needs and feelings to one another. It can be hard to assess work/school culture because 1) we might not be intentional about building a positive work culture 2) we might not have shared language or expectations around what to look for. What are the ingredients to a good school culture? What needs to be put in place to ensure we create a culture of innovation?
The first part of addressing school culture is relatively easy. We must make school culture a priority, and understand the value of investing in the people we work with and the community we are creating. We can only get so far with our mission, with implementing new ideas, or with change if we don’t lay the groundwork that motivates and encourages people to not just engage but reach their full potential.
The second part – assessing school culture – can be a bit more challenging. Fortunately, there are tools and resources in place that can help us to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses as an organization. For instance part of facilitating change comes from a shared sense of community. When people feel like they belong, they feel valued, and they feel a shared mission they’re more likely to have the energy needed to embrace and navigate change. Another critical component is how we work together. Taking the time to evaluate how we communicate with one another, set expectations, and provide opportunities for people to learn and grow help members of your team to bring their best self. Finally, ensuring that everyone has the time, space, tools, and resources needed to materialize ideas is critical to success.
School culture is key towards making change in education possible. At the end of the day it is the interaction between teachers and students where most of the magic happens. If we don’t do more to nurture these spaces, to include their voices, I fear we won’t get too far with any of our agendas.