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International schools: creating a culture 

When a typhoon put one school’s classrooms out of bounds, the leadership team instead focused on creating a culture, says Karrie Dietz

International students and school culture

Imagine a new school is preparing to open.

Several teachers arrive in Hong Kong, their new home, ready to create new learning spaces and plan for the year ahead.

They have three weeks to get settled and prepare to welcome their first students.

And then something happens. 

A series of typhoons hit Hong Kong, delaying the construction of the new school. The school isn’t accessible to teachers until only a few days before opening.

This is what happened to Stamford American School, Hong Kong.

Fortunately, there is a very happy ending, as we put this downtime to good use. Without access to the school, the practical aspects of preparation were put on hold, allowing the team to focus on creating a school culture. The rewards have been far-reaching.

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Culture over strategy

Inspired by Peter Drucker’s advice, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, time was spent discussing and developing culture during our first three weeks before the first term started.

As a new school, people and relationships were also new. This newness, combined with having time, provided a unique opportunity to think about the culture we would create.

But how would we decide what the school’s culture would be – how we would think, act and interact?

We used Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker’s ”12 aspects of school culture” as a guide for conversations and reflections:

1.   Vision (what our dream is).

2.   Mission (why we are here).

3.   Rituals (habitual activities).

4.   Language (local jargon, humour).

5.   Ceremonies (glorified rituals).

6.   Symbols (tangible stuff).

7.   Values and beliefs (what’s really important).

8.   Heroes (who we are proud of).

9.   Climate (the mood we are usually in).

10. Norms (unwritten rules).

11. Tools (what we use to get work done).

12. Stories (what tales might we choose to share and how).

These are not the only aspects to consider but they have worked well for us to use as a framework.

To start, we focused on vision and mission, defining a shared dream and exploring our purpose.

What might achieving our vision sound like, look like and feel like? Our teams had the opportunity to perform songs and skits, and some chose to create movies to express their ideas.

Values and beliefs were explored, with a focus on creating a culture of care. 

Ideas included focusing on kindness with students during the first weeks of school, reading books with these themes, and involving students in deciding what this would look like.

Involving parents

Our parents participated in similar conversations and agreed that creating a sense of belonging should become one of the purposes of our Parent School Association.

Faculty and staff continued to explore and reflect on the 12 aspects of school culture throughout the year. We created rituals and ceremonies, and celebrated heroes that aligned to our vision, mission and values.

One of our heroes is Candy, a student who joined our school with very limited English. Through commitment and courage, she played a starring role in our school production.

At the end of each year, faculty and staff reflect on each of the 12 aspects. We consider what progress has been made, what we want to keep doing and what ideas were there for developing each of the aspects further.

During our first year, faculty and staff were given badges for service. As a result of feedback, it has become a tradition to create new badges annually and wear them on our lanyards as a symbol of commitment to the school and its children.

Maintaining a culture

So, how might these ideas apply to a school that already has a culture?

Perhaps consider your school’s vision, mission and values – have these been articulated and is there a clear understanding of them? Are they alive? Do new families, faculty and staff know this is the culture they are choosing to join?

In international schools, people come and go, and this can impact culture. So, as we grow, our focus has shifted from creating the culture to sustaining it.

At Stamford, this continuous cycle of sharing stories, reflecting on progress and sharing ideas for enhancements continues.

We discuss culture when recruiting new faculty and staff, and we ask questions related to our school’s values. We also take the initiative to speak out when individual values and beliefs are not aligned to our school values; something that takes courage.

True culture emerges in times of stress or adversity. Spending three weeks before school developing a positive and purposeful culture has prepared us for the first few years of operation.

Karrie Dietz is head of school at Stamford American School, Hong Kong. She tweets at @kadietz

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