Ryan Fellow / Principal, Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary
One of the biggest challenges school leaders face is building a strong culture at the schools they lead. Perhaps nothing is more important than the team who will be executing on the leader’s vision and strategic plan. But how can you know you’re on the right path as you start out? For answers, we interviewed Janai Douglas, Principal at Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie for her insights on what works—and why—as she focuses on the High-Performing Team objective of our Accelerate Framework.
Setting a School Culture & Vision
Why do you choose to focus on building a strong adult culture? Why should this be such a large focus of the school leader’s time?
Every school has a culture—it’s up to the school leader to define it or one will be defined for you. I believe the time I take to build staff culture directly impacts the quality of the leader in front of the children. That applies to everyone from the front office staff, to teachers, to our volunteers.
We are still a 1st year turnaround school. I heard someone equate the work we do to rolling a boulder up a hill blindfolded. It’s really hard, and all the pieces are not laid together perfectly yet. So we must have people that not only can see when the boulder is starting to slide but also are willing to put their head in to create a solution.
What are the main strategies you have used to build a strong adult culture at your school?
My first strategy in building a strong culture began in the year before the school opened. I started with a vision for the type of person I wanted to work on our team.
That vision included:
- Team members with experience. (“Working in a turnaround school be akin to going pro, it is not for the faint-hearted or individuals who never experienced challenges,” Janai explains.)
- Team members who can create experiences for students that extend beyond academics and behavioral compliance
- Team members who feel cared about as a person at work
- Team members who feel that they can bring an idea to the table and know that it will be met with respect and thoughtfulness
- Team members who recognize a problem and have an innovative spirit
- Team members who feel working in a turnaround charter school is a sustainable career, not just a 2-year job that they can walk away from when they burnout
- Team members who feel personal ownership in the success of all components of the school regardless of role on the team.
- Team members that love kids!
- Team members who like to have fun!
After I had my vision set, I created experiences, mottos, and processes intended to develop, draw attention to and celebrate the above behaviors in action.
From there, I created an introspective leadership team culture. That simply means if a teacher is not yet meeting the values, then what more do we as the leaders of the building need to do to get them there?
And finally, maybe most importantly, make it systematic; ensure experiences intended to develop a culture are not one-offs but ones that occur frequently and at predictable intervals.
Using Systems & Traditions
How do you leverage your morning huddle?
It’s used in a variety of ways. The first function is to create a space to physically see everyone in the morning before we start our day. Without a common meeting spot, it can be so hard to make contact with the full team each day.
Secondly, it serves as an exercise in communication equality. I always kick off the huddle with a greeting and one message for the day. Then I turn it over to anyone in the huddle who has announcements, requests, or questions.
Make it systematic; ensure experiences intended to develop a culture are not one-offs, but ones that occur frequently and at predictable intervals.
It is not a time in which only the school director or only leadership team members speak; the floor is open for everyone.
Once, when I felt like the teacher voice in huddle was waning, I created a focus for each day, for each grade and the functional team took a week and led morning meeting. Some of the focus areas included sharing a student celebration, sharing team gratitude, and sharing a motivational quote for the team.
What traditions have you built to create and solidify your community?
Each Friday we close out with Shout Outs. They are so full of laughter and sometimes tears, but always with pride in another week completed and a deep level of commitment to the work.
A staff member added the Jaguar Award—it’s a jaguar keychain—and the “Support You” suspenders, which are a pair of super colorful suspenders. These items are passed on to a team member each Friday.
It is so awesome because it is an individual celebration. There is a brief speech, and it most often comes from teachers to other teachers rather than being from me or leadership team driven.
Each month we have a staff outing. Our staff enjoys spending time together. Before we knew that, we made sure we orchestrated time together by creating monthly events to foster camaraderie. We usually schedule the events during our normal PD time on Friday so the staff doesn’t feel like they have to stay out late or that they have to extended their work day. It is as important to building a successful and sustainable team as are our content PDs.
Each teacher belongs to a subset team. Whether that is a grade-level team or a functional team, these teams within our larger team create space and devoted time for teammates to form bonds.
In January, we created Professional Growth Coaches. Teachers have both a content coach and a Professional Growth coach/cohort. This structure was created so the teachers had a space twice a month in their PGC cohort meetings to discuss their personal growth trajectory. It’s also where they can discuss issues in the school that extend outside of their content scope.
Hiring, Retaining & Communicating with Staff
How does your staff feel about your approach? Do they embrace it? How do you know?
I do think our staff enjoys coming to work; I base that on our survey data, anecdotal data, and the level of urgency our team members show each day.
Additionally, several members of our team, both teachers and admin staff, have created after school opportunities and experiences for students. I take this to mean they enjoy being here and don’t mind staying even later to work with students more.
What is your staff retention rate for next year?
We only have one staff member who is leaving us. She’s moving back to Georgia to pursue her MBA. She is awesome and will be greatly missed. So that equates to a 98% retention rate.
We heard that your staff is planning a trip to New Orleans together? How does this relate to your strong adult culture?
When one of my team members first brought the idea to me, my first reaction was a little bit of disbelief. I think my first response was, “Do you think people will want to go out of town with their coworkers?”
Much to my surprise, we have enough people going to fill up a charter bus. Even three of our third party vendor Pre-K teachers and our two lunch ladies are going. I think that this is a testament to our overarching culture that we are a group of people with many different backgrounds and interests but we all deeply respect one another and cherish the time we have together.
I think my first response was, ‘Do you think people will want to go out of town with their coworkers?’ Much to my surprise, we have enough people going to fill up a charter bus.
We have heard that your communication style is more about in-person communication, rather than email? How does that support a strong adult culture?
I am not the biggest fan of email. It’s great, it’s quick, it’s convenient, and it’s the way of the world. But it’s also easy to be misinterpreted, emotionless, and distant.
Most often, we use email to over-communicate information that has already been shared or to share follow up information. I think meeting face-to-face benefits our team. It creates a necessity for more in-person time, it allows for the recipient to ask questions in the moment, and it easy to clear up any misunderstandings immediately.
What happens when there is a bad culture fit on the team? What strategies have you employed to make sure this does not affect the rest of the team?
We have unfortunately had our share of individuals who weren’t strong fits on our team. The first step is to see how we can step up our coaching. Every person I hired was someone I believed was going to be great. So I feel I owe it to every person to pull out all the stops before we part ways.
When those difficult times arose, however, I was honest with my team. I don’t want it to be any mystery why someone leaves. I reiterated our vision and shared how actions that we had all witnessed didn’t match up. I met with teams and individuals one-on-one that were impacted by that person in a negative way so that we could talk about the impact. And although I can’t always solve a person’s problem, I do want them to know I care.
How does hiring affect your adult culture? What are the main things you are looking for to make sure someone is a good fit?
Hiring this year is very different last year. Last year, when everyone was brand new, it was more about hiring for a static set of fit and performance indicators. This year, it is all of that and the degree to which I believe someone will fit well with the team we have become. I owe it to my team and the culture we have built together to only bring in people who have a strong aptitude to assimilate to our dynamic.
So in terms of culture, I am looking for good team players; people who show evidence of tenacity; individuals who believe there is good in every community, and who aren’t afraid to become a part of people’s lives; educators who believe it is our job as a school to educate the whole child. I look for candidates that show a lot of initiative.
All the culture pieces we do are in service of building a more cohesive team that is more likely to lean on the strengths and talents of each other—and have fun doing it—while we go about this incredibly important and challenging work.