Culture fit vs culture add

There is little doubt that a start-of-the-year best practice list for educational leaders would include helping new faculty fit into the culture of the school. Indeed it’s important that new teachers, whether experienced or novices, are given the lay of the land. But, as opposed to simply fitting in, new teachers can, in fact, meaningfully add to a school’s culture. That, in turn, means that leaders cannot allow school culture to remain static or even stagnant. Rather, school culture must evolve with societal shifts, as well as with the emergence of new thinking and the introduction of new ideas. 

School culture has been defined as, “the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school. These unwritten expectations build up over time as teachers, administrators, parents, and students work together, solve problems, deal with challenges and, at times, cope with failures. For example, every school has a set of expectations about what can be discussed at staff meetings, what constitutes good teaching techniques, how willing the staff is to change, and the importance of staff development” (Deal & Peterson, 1999).[1]

It is still the case that many independent schools focus heavily on an assessment of cultural “fit” in determining whether a candidate should be hired.  Traditionally, orientation programs for new staff focussed exclusively on ensuring that the new hires understand “how things are done around here.”

However, current thinking has begun to take a more critical view of the notion of culture “fit”. How can a school continue to grow and evolve if its hires are expected to “fit” into the existing culture rather than help it evolve? Some writers believe that “culture add” is a more useful concept (Schmid, 2017).[2]

Instead of valuing a candidate for his ability to “fit” into the existing culture of a school, how, it is asked, can the candidate enrich it? As independent schools become more diverse, and indeed value and promote diversity, a shift in emphasis from culture “fit” to culture “add” becomes more important. What worked well when the student body of a school were all strongly academic with no particular learning needs, when they all came from similar socio-economic and religious-cultural communities, may not be appropriate when schools are diverse in all those ways.

I had the fascinating, perhaps extreme, experience of spending a day with the principal in a South African high school when that country was beginning to transform from a racially segregated society into a more integrated one. The school I visited had been a “white” school and had recently become racially mixed. The well-established, taken-for-granted norms in white schools had to be revisited. For example, it had been traditional when the teacher entered the room that students stood up. However, many of the students were taller than their teachers, and in the culture of at least some of the black students, it was considered ill-mannered to stand above someone one was supposed to respect. Another example: white students had been taught that it was disrespectful to raise one’s voice when speaking to someone in authority. However, to at least some of the black students, speaking softly was considered a sign of sneakiness or dishonesty, while a forthright person spoke loudly, showing he had nothing to hide. In that school, in that situation, excessive loyalty to the old ways of doing things, the old “culture” of the school, would have been a great impediment to success in the new environment. What was needed was a faculty with diverse experiences giving them, collectively, an understanding of the varied cultural norms of their students, and a capacity and desire to contribute to the creation of a new school culture that would support its new circumstances.

I am not advocating an extreme position.  No one, surely, wants a new hire to ignore the culture of the school, and, before even understanding it, simply feel free to do his own “thing.” It is important for any new teacher (or administrator) to understand the environment, to learn its norms, values and practices. Anyone who rides roughshod over these, will surely very quickly antagonise all those around her – students, parents, administrators and alumni. 

The challenge for school leaders is to help the new hires to understand the school, but not stifle their ability to contribute their ideas and creativity and unique skills. The way things were done should not be given a kind of hallowed status, never to be questioned or changed. While change is difficult, and will often meet with some resistance and resentment, forward-thinking school leaders will promote a climate that encourages innovation while not ignoring or undervaluing the school’s history and culture.

In staff meetings, or in private conversations with supervisors, new hires, no less than their more established colleagues, can be encouraged to share practices they have seen elsewhere. Indeed, staff meetings could routinely have a slot for such sharing. Leaders should discourage innovation-killing put-downs like, “this is not how things are done here,” or, “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” or ,“If it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

Innovative, dynamic schools need to orient their new faculty gently. How things are currently done in the school is an important starting point to understanding and functioning well in the new environment. However, new thinking, and sharing of other ways of doing things should be encouraged, even from the newest faculty. There must be room for both culture fit and culture add.

[1] Peterson, ICD. & Deal, T.E. (1999). Shaping School Culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Schmid, L.  (2017). Forbes, March 21, 2017.

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