Witch Doctors, Rituals and Tribes: The Power of School Culture

I was sitting in a professional development session in my school and the presenter, a superintendent kept saying, “My teachers,” I stood up, “Excuse me, Lincoln freed the slaves, we don’t belong to you,” appreciative applause from the audience, I sat down and the presenter stumbled with, “You misunderstood me …..”  No. I didn’t.

Last week the Harvard School of Education ran an all day webinar: superintendents, Harvard faculty, researchers, US Secretary of Education Cardona, what was missing was a teacher union leader and a classroom teacher. We’re the tip of the sword; we’re the ones who actually man classrooms,  A new buzzword is Social Emotional Learning, referred to as SEL, symposiums, courses, new titles, the implication is that teachers have ignored the social and emotional needs of children, nonsense.

The Atlantic ran an Education Summit webinar; hurrah! The president of a local union talked about the loss in inflation adjusted salary, increasing workload and the school board’s refusal to allow the negotiations to be live-streamed, kudos to the Atlantic.

US Secretary Cardona was at both sessions and rightfully praised the American Rescue Act, hundreds of billions of dollars poured into education. See the details of the Plan here and the New York State dollars here. .The funds flow from Washington, to the State to the School District to the School:  how have the dollars impacted your school? I’m sure you have no idea, or whether any of the dollars reached your school.  Have teachers at the school level played any role in determining the use of the funding in their school?

For decades we’re been attending, to the best of our abilities, to the social and emotional (SEL) needs of children under our care.

Some schools have washing machines so kids wouldn’t be shamed by wearing soiled clothing, we brought clothing to school for kids, we know more about the child’s family life than we’d ever want to know.

I worked in a large high school, 3,000 kids and over 200 staff, and, although it wasn’t mentioned in the High School Directory, my school was sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ kids.  If a kid was being bullied in another school the director of student placement called the assistant principal in my school and Madeline, our exemplary social worker met the kid and eased their transition.

Three kids asked where they can say their midday prayers, was that a religious act?  The principal said, “Call the lawyers,”  we found a secure book room, asked the teacher next door to open the room so the kids could say their midday prayers and stored their prayers rugs, Teachers found answers lawyers would only have complicated.

Every morning we stopped by Sheila’s office, she was the Assistant Principal for Guidance, always a pot steaming pot of coffee and comestibles. The school union leader, a few old timers, the unelected “brain trust,” Sheila would mention, “The principal’s thinking about …,” we’d comment, make suggestions, we were a well-functioning school because there was a high level of trust, teacher leaders not on the organization chart at the heart of the school decision-making process.

School systems have been slow to recognize the crucial importance of school cultures, a topic that is reemerging.

Charlotte Danielson’s latest, Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice (2020),


Every school relies on teachers who informally and voluntarily lead various efforts in the school. These teachers may not be appointed leaders or paid leaders, but they are committed leaders: they see a need and they respond to it. What do these teacher leaders do that is different from the work of excellent teachers who are not teacher leaders? If we can articulate those skills, says Charlotte Danielson, then we can take steps to enable more teachers to develop those skills and be better equipped to tackle special projects.

In a professional development role I’ve asked teachers to draw a sociogram of the power structure in their school, a fascinating exercise: who are the “appointed” teacher leaders and who are the witch doctors who teachers turn to for thumbs up or down.

Danielson avers, Principal must learn to promote, honor, and empower teacher leaders—and how to work with them to successfully present innovations to the school community …genuine teacher leadership is a powerful force for constructive change.

In Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership (2017) Terrance Deal and Kent Peterson write

… far too much emphasis has been given to reforming schools from the outside, through policies and mandates. Too little attention has been paid to how schools can be shaped from within …. School cultures become like tribes and clans with deep ties among people with values and traditions that give value to everyday life.

I was facilitating common planning time in a small school, I’d meet with the English and Social Studies teachers weekly, slowly they agreed to share lesson plans and graded student work and class projects, and as the trust grew they asked me to attend their Friday ritual, retreating to local watering hole after school. The conversation would turn to this or that perceived school issue.  Someone would call, the principal would appear and over drinks, in a casual atmosphere school policies were determined.

Some school cultures are toxic, adversarial, and aloof while others thrive.

Chancellors, superintendents, principals and teachers may come and go, school cultures survive.  We had a “code,” if the superintendent was in the building, over the loud speaker, “Will the teacher with the silver Rolls-Royce please move their car,” we knew how to run our school we resented outsiders from the aeries of the Board of Education. We had a thriving school culture, how do we build positive school cultures in more schools?

One response to “Witch Doctors, Rituals and Tribes: The Power of School Culture

  1. In the late 1980s at the first International High School, ( the one at LaGuardia Community College in Queens ), a faculty council that included parent and student representatives made the important decisions in the school. With the knowledge and support of the UFT and BOE, a faculty personnel committee hired, supported and evaluated teachers for matters of continuation of probation and a kind of three-year renewable tenure. Faculty committees for curriculum and professional development were responsible for those areas as well. Every member of the faculty served on one of these three committees. The assistant principal for instruction was a teacher elected by peers to a three-year non-renewable term, after whom ch they would return to full time teaching responsibilities.

    Students at the school, all recently arrived immigrants from 60 different countries speaking done 40 different languages excelled well beyond their expected performance. You can’t empower kids through education until you first empower their teachers. The problem in education is not that we don’t know what to do about our failures. It’s that we can’t recognize and replicate our successes. That the International model has since been replicated dozens of times throughout the city and around the country was not the result of systemic reform; but rather, a not-for-profit partnership organization created by the leaders of the first three such schools.

    And we were not alone. That there is only one City-As-School for in New York, only one Urban Academy, only one Fannie Lou Hamer, and other successful experiments is the result of short sightedness on the part of successive administrations over decades. What these and other innovative education communities have in common is that they all empower their teachers.


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