I recently read a book on shifting school culture, and in it, the author suggested that a sure-fire way to build a culture was to introduce a common enemy. Now, I love books on leadership. I find great satisfaction in reflecting on and exploring the nature of effective leadership…especially in schools. And this is not the first time I have read or heard someone suggest that a common enemy is friend to a leader trying to build a community and create a positive culture. I am here to tell you that they could not be more wrong.
When I was a middle school teacher, our principal retired and a new leader joined us. It was the perfect time for me because I had assumed some new leadership roles within the school and District, and he almost immediately became a mentor to me. Among the many things I learned that first year was that an enemy of any kind was not something to be exploited for the “culture cause”.
So many times in a school, the common enemy becomes the District. In fact, I suggested on many occasions that our building was well-served by the us-verses-them culture we had fostered between our building and the District. I made the same seemingly-compelling argument that the author I just read did. We needed to unite against this common enemy. At first our principal just listened, but he told me I was wrong. I fought back with what seemed like compelling reasons. I was convinced I was right. He disagreed, but he let me continue to weigh the arguments for myself.
“We bond over our distaste for what ‘they’ are doing to ‘us’.” Who is ‘they’, he’d ask.
“Seeing ‘them’ as an enemy helps protect us from disappointment when we do not achieve at the expected levels ‘they’ set for us.” Shouldn’t we be disappointed if our students are not achieving to their fullest potential, he’d ask.
“It’s fun to have someone or something to rally/complain/fight against. And fun builds positivity.” How could negativity ever build positivity, he’d ask.
Finally one day he simply said, “We’re all in this together Heather.”
When a student is disengaged or struggling with behavior issues or not reaching his/her full potential, we all lose. A leader understands that. A leader understands that it takes the positive actions of everyone involved in that child’s life and education to make a change. Changing the life of a child in a positive way should always be the culture we strive for in our schools. And that culture will lead to a positive climate for adults.
“They” were just as interested in the success of our students as we were. “They” were doing the best they could to set meaningful goals for all students and to provide the necessary support for us to achieve.
As someone who is now a “they”, I have never been more aware of the dangers of an us-verses-them culture. It is damaging…and it is dangerous. A single school should never build its own culture at the expense of the culture of the District. We are all in this together.