Guest post by Jay R. Dostal

Last year, my leadership team held a two-day retreat to focus on moving from our current school building into the new one we were building at the time. As you might imagine, moving a 230,000 square foot building, in addition to implementing a new educational model centered on college, career, and life readiness, can be quite stressful and taxing. Many details needed to be coordinated, including developing a communication plan, updating multiple forms with the new address, purchasing new furniture, and much more. My team and I worked diligently to put together a list of things that we needed to get done during our two-day hiatus away from the building, and we had every intention of getting them completed before the second semester started. Then the retreat happened.

One of my team members remembered an article they had read recently about building a culture. The gist of the article was that organizations too often focus on what they have to DO rather than what they want to BE. After a lengthy discussion, we collectively decided that we needed to set aside what we had planned for the retreat and really focused on the CULTURE that we wanted to bring with us to our new school. We decided to figure out what we wanted to BE before we focused on what we had to DO. It was a watershed moment for all of us because we realized as a leadership team that we were doing things backward. We are all plenty busy doing a lot of things, but we never stopped to think about why we were doing them in the first place. We never took the time to determine if what we were doing was taking us any closer to what we wanted to be as a school. That is when the magic happened.

We started by looking at some work that our staff had done regarding their vision of Small Learning Communities at our new school. Groups of teachers were asked to come together and describe what a student should look like after graduating from high school. They came up with words like: respectful, adaptable, creative, resilient, honest, engaged, purposeful, and many more. We then looked at student and parent surveys that were completed for our upcoming accreditation visit and, sure enough, the same words appeared again. Over and over again, we had parents, students, and teachers stating what they wanted our school’s culture to promote. After working for hours analyzing data and wordsmithing, we developed a concept that we are still working with our staff to modify and adjust. We are developing common definitions and language that we can all use together. We are building a culture.

We understand that culture is not something that changes overnight. We need to be diligent in our pursuit of a paradigm shift. We need to educate our students and parents about what we are trying to accomplish. We need to stop DOING things that do not bring us closer to what we want to BE. This is extremely hard work, but it is worth it. Our school, our community, our students, and our teachers will all be better for it.

What do you want your school to BE?

Jay R. Dostal, EdD, is the principal of Kearney High School in Kearney, NE. He has been in education for 15 years, 10 of which have been in an administrative role. He is the father of two amazing kids, Brenna and Mason. His wife, Melanie, is a special education teacher. Jay is the 2016 Nebraska Principal of the Year.

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