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Leading Through Challenges - Building Strong Cultures

Written by John Van Pelt on January 11th, 2021

Back in August when I offered to write some reflections for this month’s newsletter about leading through challenges, I was thinking about the significant challenges that leaders in schools faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges of planning for the unknown, responding to new and shifting regulations, calming the fears and anxieties of staff and students, communicating in clear and thoughtful ways to our parent communities, and revising budgets to meet new realities—all of these qualifying as examples of leading through challenges. At the time, I did not consider that I would be dealing with other challenges like the tragic death of a student or a hit and run accident of two students walking to school in the first semester. And I know from conversations with other leaders that, in addition to the challenges presented by this current pandemic, they face many different and unexpected challenges in their work. We instinctively knew this could happen when we signed up for the job, but are still surprised when faced with new challenges.

In my context as principal at Woodland Christian High School in Breslau, building a strong school culture over the last several years has helped carry the school through difficult challenges. The leader is ultimately responsible for building and maintaining a positive culture that cultivates community, contentment, and even joy, as the school’s mission is carried out through daily rituals and routines. When I talk about school culture, I borrow the definition from Dr. Kent Peterson in Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership, who says that “school culture is the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school.” According to Peterson, schools with a toxic culture lack a clear sense of purpose, have norms that reinforce inertia, blame students for lack of progress, discourage collaboration, and often have hostile relationships among staff. 

On the other hand, there are schools with a positive culture. These are schools

  • where staff have a shared sense of purpose, where they pour their hearts into teaching;
  • where the underlying norms are of collegiality, improvement, and hard work;
  • where student rituals and traditions celebrate student accomplishment, teacher innovation, and parental commitment;
  • where the informal network of storytellers, heroes, and heroines provides a social web of information, support, and history;
  • where success, joy, and humor abound. Strong positive cultures are places with a shared sense of what is important, a shared ethos of caring and concern, and a shared commitment to helping students learn.” (Source: Peterson, “How Leaders Influence the Culture of Schools”)

These defining characteristics of a school are quite similar to the qualities of excellent organizations or institutions that Anne Snyder outlines in her book The Fabric of Character.

Building and maintaining a positive culture is always difficult work, but particularly difficult in the situation we currently face with this pandemic: when face to face contact is discouraged, when teachers often have to work in isolation, when we are distracted from our sense of purpose by the urgency of new policy requirements, and when regular rituals and ceremonies that we have enjoyed for years can no longer be done. As teachers struggle with new ways of meeting student needs, personal anxiety, and increased expectations, the frustrations can quickly result in blaming students for lack of progress rather than accepting the shared responsibility for success. So, how do leaders build healthy school cultures in a time of challenge and crisis? I would love to provide a definitive answer to this question but instead can share a few of the things I have found helpful in my journey as a leader over the past few months:

  1. Meet often - Our staff has always had the practice of starting our day together in devotions. We do that in person when we are able and by Zoom when that is not possible. Meeting provides a shared sense of purpose, and it is a reminder that we face challenges together. While very few of us look forward to yet another Zoom session, there is a sense of connection when all of our staff’s faces show up together. 
  2. Find ways to celebrate success - Over the past ten months, our staff has shared more examples of excellent student work than ever before. Teachers have shared digital presentations, videos, poetry, artwork, and pictures of student work, as well as the new learning tools that have been used. This has been a source of significant encouragement, humour, and joy for us as educators take delight in student work, and in the opportunities that have been offered to students. But it has also been a way for teachers to learn from each other as they address new challenges.   
  3. Create time for staff to collaborate - Responding to change is exhausting, and teachers need time to refresh and recharge. Understanding that we are working through the challenges together helps give courage and strength to others. Over the past year, we have increased the number of days for teachers to collaborate—something that has been appreciated.
  4. Help your community to encourage your staff - Leaders need to meet more often with individual teachers to hear their concerns and communicate appreciation for work well done in trying situations. We also need to remind our boards and the parent community about the excellent work our teachers do. Board members and parents will respond with notes of appreciation that we can share with our staff. 
  5. Communicate frequently - Communication has been critical during challenging times. But sometimes our message ends up being focused on the new regulations rather than a reminder of our shared purpose and reason for being. Our teachers and our communities need the reassurance that our schools serve a higher purpose and calling. 
  6. Phone a friend - This past semester has been especially challenging for me, and I am so thankful for the people who emailed or called, or were willing to accept my calls.  Leaders need people. One of the blessings of Edvance is the network of capable and caring leaders that we can lean on during challenging times. Leaders can sometimes get caught up with the notion that we need to be strong and independently solve the issues we face. I encourage you to take advantage of the experience, the wisdom, and the compassion of other leaders. 
  7. Be good to yourself and to others (Practice Sabbath) - Leading through challenges increases our workday’s intensity, and the responsibility of leading can result in leaders running on empty. Leaders should not feel guilty about taking time away from the workplace for personal retreat and refreshment. The reality is that work and responsibility tend to follow us everywhere unless we are brave enough to put away our phones. Leaders have little to give when they are not being refilled regularly. 

Creating and maintaining healthy school cultures is a critical part of our work as leaders. We are dealing with particularly challenging times, and the management of a school’s day-to-day operations can be overwhelming. I am afraid that we might lose some ground in promoting healthy school cultures during this time, but we also know this crisis will pass. We rest in the hope of a resurrected Jesus Christ who will bring restoration and healing to our world. Until then, take courage and joy in being His ambassador as you lead your communities through the challenges.


John Van Pelt is the Upper Grand Cohort Leader and Principal at Woodland Christian High School in Breslau, ON.

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