A stake in the ground

March 2011

 

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Creating a workplace culture can drive improvements but has its challenges.

Go to the office counter at Aorere College and you’ll see photos of ‘students of the month’. A plaque on the wall states: “At Aorere we say please”.

There’s clearly a conscious effort here by staff to create a culture of success, and it has not gone unnoticed.

The Education Review Office reports that “a culture of achievement and cultural inclusiveness characterises the school”, located in Auckland’s southern suburb of Papatoetoe. NCEA results have steadily improved and are at or above that of similar schools.

Principal Patrick Drumm, at Aorere since mid-2009, says nothing happens in a school without staff driving it, so developing a positive workplace culture is important. His own efforts have caught attention.

A headline in The New Zealand Herald last year stated somewhat dramatically: “Teachers upset over principal’s dress edict”, after he requested that teachers come to work in business attire, including ties for the men.

Drumm says the dress code for staff is part of the symbolic side of setting high expectations for students.

“It was a stake in the ground. I was new in the school. We identified some issues with student uniform. We couldn’t have staff in very casual dress giving students instructions about ties and blazers.”

He says some teachers did question the decision but it is not an ongoing issue.

“It was challenging to a small group of staff but they were good about it. There was no conflict.”

In fact, he says he expects to hear criticism from such a large staff, comprised of nearly 100 teachers and 40 support staff.

He even sent out a questionnaire asking staff to write down something he was doing that they liked, something they didn’t like, and suggestions for what else he could do.

“I’d be a bit nervous if I wasn’t hearing any criticism because this is a big organisation,” he says.

The whole school staff meets most mornings. There are frequent team meetings. In many encounters both formal and informal, Drumm and his leadership team spread messages about where they want the school to head. Goals are made explicit and supported by professional development for teachers (Drumm adds that he makes clear the decile 2 school’s financial limitations: local fundraising is negligible). Change is gradual.

“It takes time and this school has made big progress in the past seven to eight years under the previous principal. Staff have pride in that.”

Drumm says his teachers need to believe in the difference they are making, and they need to form strong relationships with students.

“Students are clever and savvy; they choose who they’ll invest in,” he says. “Simply as a transactional teacher you won’t survive in the school. Students connect to those teachers who are not just doing their job but are building relationships with those students, who have a

belief that they are transforming lives.”

Bringing back neck-ties was a token, albeit a highly visible one, of the drive to improve the school. Developing the staff culture is not just a matter of being warm and fuzzy.

“You have to create a certain amount of tension between what we could be and what we are,” says Drumm. “Otherwise you can have a lovely school where everyone is comfortable, but you’re under-performing.”