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May 10, 2010 School Culture: Impact on Teacher Motivation By Justin Lim

      Have you ever attended a professional development seminar or workshop and found yourself nodding your head as you listened to the speaker point out truth after truth of things that you have seen throughout the educational field? A few weeks ago, I experienced just that as Dr. Anthony Muhammad helped me to better understand why school culture can often be so frustrating for motivated teachers. To sum up one of his key points, technical changes such as scheduling, after school programs, and intervention classes cannot truly impact a school if it has a self-defeating culture. When I say school culture, I'm not talking so much about what goes on with students. I'm talking more about us, the staff.

    After attending the workshop, I was forced to take a critical look at my own school and ask some pointed questions like, are our teachers more concerned with student achievement or more concerned with maintaining the status quo? Do we spend our time complaining or coming up with solutions? What habits are we teaching new teachers?

    These may seem like issues that you, as an individual teacher, can't tackle, but the truth is that there are ways that you can impact your school's culture for the better. Here's how:

    1. Recognize what kind of a teacher you are
    - Dr. Muhammad categorizes teachers into four main categories: believers, fundamentalists, tweeners, and survivors. Believers are teachers who place student learning first. They make decisions based on what they feel is the best for their students. During his research, Dr. Muhammad discovered that believers were intrinsically motivated and were flexible when it came to dealing with their kids. They were the most likely to try new strategies or programs, if convinced that it was for the good of their students. Next are fundamentalists, who were concerned with maintaining the status quo. These teachers, often without even knowing it, created a negative school culture by working in informal settings. For example, fundamentalists were often observed complaining in the lounges, but were less likely to express their concerns in formal meetings. The next group of teachers were tweeners, who are basically new teachers. Tweeners were trying to figure out what their niche is in schools. They often agree to go along with anything the administration wanted, simply because they were happy to have jobs. Lastly, there are the survivors. The goal of the survivor is simply to make it to the next day. Survivors have a tendency to negotiate with students by offering rewards for good behavior. They seemed to show movies more often than other teachers and like to give students a lot of independent work.


    In a study, it was noted that when the school culture was dominated by fundamentalists, technical changes were ineffective and student learning suffered. Administrators would claim that they could not get teacher "buy in" and there would be political factions among the staff. After staff meetings the real meetings would begin, only they would be in the teacher lounges, the hallways, and the parking lots.

    In order to determine the culture of your school or even what type of teacher you are, analyze the language of your faculty. Fundamentalists tended to focus on extrinsic factors that they could not change. Their comments started with:

    If only there were less...
    I can't believe that...
    The problem is...

    They sought to explain rather than to problem-solve. What the fundamentalists did, often without even knowing it, was to push the responsibility away. The believers, on the other hand, sounded like this:

    What do you think about...?
    I think I need to learn how to...
    What do you do when...?
    How have you dealt with...?

    The language of the believers, like the fundamentalist's, recognized that there were problems, but did not accept that the problems had to remain. The believers focused on the solutions.

    2. Help your tweeners - Or, if you are a tweener, seek help! Dr. Muhammad found that tweeners were most likely to need help from administrators, but were least likely to ask for it because they felt that they would appear to be weak teachers. While tweeners generally are highly motivated, they often lack skill, particularly in classroom management and instruction. The best schools paired up their tweeners with believers and shielded them from fundamentalists. In schools with negative cultures, when tweeners faced difficult circumstances, fundamentalists would show their influence. They would offer advice on how to "survive," and explain how "you just have to accept how it is." Before I continue, please don't misunderstand me. The fundamentalists did not have any bad intentions, in fact they were actually trying to help. They did not realize that they were creating a self-defeating school culture that inhibits learning.

    3. Affect your sphere of influence - As teachers, it would be easy for us to defer this issue to our administrators, but the fact of the matter is that administrators are largely shut out of the situations that shape school culture. They don't have access to the informal meetings that take place casually among teachers. This is where you, the believer, is so important. (I know that I'm assuming that you are indeed a believer. It's because if you are reading this blog, it's probably because you are looking for ways to improve your craft or solve a problem.) Don't be satisfied with a culture that seeks to explain why your school has so many problems but is unwilling to embrace changes. The next time you witness complaining or gossip, skillfully and carefully place the good of all students at the center of the conversation.

    Sure, that new change might mean having to learn a new strategy, or it might mean having to meet together at lunch, but if it helps student achievement then isn't it worth it?


    Be understanding, but don't let the problem dominate the conversation.

    I can see why you would feel that way, but now that we are forced to face the problem, lets focus on a solution.

    What do you think will help our students the most?

    Sadly, while fundamentalists were found to be extremely active in influencing school culture, believers where often nowhere to be found. Believers tended to work extremely hard at improving their own craft and affecting their own classes, but would seldom voice their opinions outside of formal meetings. 
    Change and improvement is not easy, but maintaining the status quo is. For the good of all students, it's up to proactive educators to make a continuous push to develop healthy school cultures.

    When all of these truths were pointed out to me, I really began to better understand why some schools thrive and others struggle. I began to realize why some schools energize their teachers while others drain them. Thankfully, I can say that I'm at a place where, although it's not perfect, it's going in the right direction. What about you?

    Warm regards,

    Justin Lim

    Rosemead High School

    El Monte Union High School District

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