How we do things around here

March 2011


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Workplace culture is a common concept in other sectors, so what about in schools? WAYNE ERB takes a look at two examples at either end of the spectrum.

On January 27, Felix Donnelly College closed on the orders of Education Minister Anne Tolley. The minister cited serious management and governance issues at this special school for students with social, behavioural and learning problems.

The Education Review Office’s last report on the school cited ‘workplace culture’ among its many concerns.

“Staff morale is low and staff behaviour is frequently unprofessional. This negative staff culture impacts badly on students’ learning and behaviour and teachers report that incidents of disruptive student behaviour are increasing.”

Clearly, the institutional culture of Felix Donnelly was right at the end of the range for the nation’s schools. Yet this extreme case suggests that workplace culture is important for teachers and school managers to consider. It may well affect staff satisfaction and student performance.

At a national level, there is some analysis of how the education profession perceives workplace culture.

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research drew on its school surveys last year for a thematic report titled School Resources, Culture and Connections. Of note, researchers found different perceptions between teachers and principals.

Both primary and secondary principals were more likely to see aspects of staff culture as good or very good, than were the teachers. These aspects included things like whether teachers shared ideas, gave feedback and developed leadership skills.

“Relationships within the school were also rated very positively by primary principals, but primary teachers were not quite as positive, and secondary teachers even less so,” states the report.

The aspects of a school’s culture are described in a checklist on the Ministry of Education’s website Educational Leaders. Adapted from work by the Quality Public Education Coalition, it covers a lot of ground: teaching practices, relationships, official edicts, ethnic and economic aspects of its community, traditions and so on.

The checklist prompts users to ask who has power in their school and how is it wielded, which structures reinforce the culture, and what goals motivate staff.

Bridging the gap in perceptions between principals and teachers may be a matter of communication style, but it may also require concrete changes to school operations.

NZCER psychological tests manager Lorraine Rowlands says surveying staff before and after changes are made lets schools assess the impact of new policies. The council sells access to a teacher workplace survey that can achieve this.

“One of the main purposes behind the tool was to increase the opportunity for teachers to have a voice in what’s going on in their workplace.”

Questions are based on research about what keeps teachers satisfied in their roles, and cover five areas: physical working environment and resources, satisfaction with school, leadership, professional development and school organisation.

Rowlands says the survey covers working conditions – things like resources, pay and leave – but also organisational culture; the way things get done in the school.

“It speaks to the deeper norms and values within an organisation. If it is a strong culture it will be pervasive.”

She says a school’s culture is optimised when it is a clear fit with the school’s purpose, and leaders have an important role in setting values and direction. A workplace culture then, is something open to change.