Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Building Culture Begins in the Staff Room

Trisha Burns
Columbus Signature Academy Middle School
Columbus, IN

Are you wondering how you can build culture in your school? Are you wanting to teach students how to model positive collaboration skills? I would like to propose that these culture “non-negotiables” begin with the staff.  I definitely don’t want to say that CSA Central has it all figured out when it comes to adult collaboration, but we do our best to foster collaboration with each other.  The four things we purposely do to help us collaborate together effectively is having a shared work space, Critical Friends Group meetings, Friday meetings with a structured agenda, and integrated projects.

Shared Work Space
I remember touring CSA New Tech High School while I sat in my first PBL 101 class (now PBL Jumpstart) almost 10 years ago.  Their staff room was amazing!  It had a huge table where they had their meetings in the middle and individual desks along the side, but they were all together.  I LOVED THAT!  Actually, it probably helped in my decision to teach at CSA as much as the model of project-based learning itself. It intrigued me that a staff could work so closely together.

So when I came to CSA Central, I was surprised that they didn’t have a whole team workroom.  However, that would soon change.  Our plan, our design, our agreements have developed significantly since the first year of having the work room, but we have a great shared place.  This room has a place for us all to meet together for our weekly meetings. It has two smaller sections of tables, one for the 7th grade teachers and one for the 8th grade teachers.  It also has two other desks for the special ed and ELL teachers to work in there with us.  As 8th grade teachers, we use the work room almost 100% of the time when we are not with students.  It makes it easier to plan projects and stay on the same page with issues that come up since we have a shared space.  Prior to the creation of this room, our team meetings, no matter which of the 4 schools I worked at, would be in a staff member’s room.  I was a part of 8 years of successful meetings in other teachers’ classrooms, but it says something when a space is shared so well among adults.  Students get to see how we work together just like what we ask them to do. Sidenote: Can you find 3 CSA Central facilitators in this pic of our workroom?

Critical Friends Group
Every Wednesday, the whole CSA Central staff meets together first period. We meet in order to give/receive feedback on something we are working on in class or to focus on a specific skill we want to collectively and professionally develop in order keep us all on the same page. When we are in the creation process, we present our ideas to the staff, and they either help us continue our brainstorm or tune what we have already.  The brainstorming protocol we use is The Charrette Protocol, but if the the project is more developed, we use the Tuning Protocol with modified time limits. If neither of those protocols work for you, then find one that will on the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) website. The important part of a protocol is that it helps us have meaningful, structured, and productive conversations. Sometimes we use this time to do professional development or share some of our individual ideas with the whole group.  Just this last week, the person who helps train engineers to work together at Cummins, a large engineering company in Columbus, came and showed us the activity she uses with their employees. We used this as an opportunity to see what she does with them and think through how we can apply it for our students all while we learned a little bit more about each other.  We schedule our CFG’s on our cabinets in the teacher work room. Our Wednesday meeting time is a perfect time for us to share our ideas and receive feedback in a safe environment, and it also helps us stay on the same page in our planning of our projects.

Friday Meetings with Structured Agenda
Every Friday morning, we meet as a whole CSA Central staff for what we call our “Nuts and Bolts” meeting.  We use this time to plan CSA Central culture building activities for our students like our beginning of the year project, The Race to Real-World Readiness, our middle of the year recharge session, or even the end of the year presentations (Personal Education Development Talks). This, also, involves 6th grade activities to teach them about our program, brainstorming and putting into motion ideas to help us continue to fine tune our identity as a school within a school and as part of a K12 Pathway for our district, and planning of our school tours and visits when other schools come to check us out.  We also use this time to share dates of other activities and events going on so we all stay in communication with each other.

We seemed to always do a great job at the beginning of the year coming up with our working group agreements and group roles for the staff in order to make sure we would share the load. However a few weeks later we would forget what our roles were and would have to go check out a poster when we wanted to remember what our agreements were.  Last year we started posting them at the top of each of our meeting agendas.  We begin (most) of our Friday meetings with the Connections Protocol.  Here is the structured agenda we have now use and that works best for us.  Then when it is time for the next Friday’s meeting we just make a copy of the last week’s agenda, and work from there. 

Integrated Projects
There is nothing like doing an integrated project to help you develop your collaboration skills.  Students can observe their teachers learning how to work together.  When you are used to working by yourself in your classroom working with only your content, it can be difficult to adjust for the first couple of integrated projects. There’s a learning curve, when you have to share your time with another teacher and collectively figure out what classroom management looks like when you are both with the students.  It is not always easy to work with another adult to create and facilitate projects, but it is a great way to develop more authentic projects and help the students see how their teachers work together too. Here are some resources from the New Tech Network on team teaching and/or working in an integrated classroom.

Staff Culture is a great place to start as you are creating school culture.  What you want to be important to your students, you need to model as a staff.  We have worked really hard to develop an atmosphere of collaboration for both the students and the staff.  Like I said, it isn’t always perfect.  Communication still can break down.  Sometimes spending so much time together isn’t a great thing, but one thing I know is that we all want what is best for the students, and we want to model best practices for the students.

What does your staff do to develop school culture? What next steps can you take to build a culture of collaboration among your staff? For more information about building culture check out The PBL Playbook  podcast and its most recent episode, Creating a PBL Culture .