Imagine a school where the love of Christ is lived every day, even among the faculty and staff…
A Culture of Grace
School culture is both internal and external. As Stephen Gessner has said,
Internal culture is less explicit, more felt than articulated, and functions through implicit understandings, underlying and taken-for-granted beliefs, worldviews, unspoken priorities, and shared assumptions. Organizational culture is like the proverbial iceberg: what is seen and apparent- the external, explicit, and overt aspects- make up a small part of the whole. Below the surface are the internal, implicit, and covert aspects of culture, which can be much stronger and more influential. Leaders need to understand these different aspects of culture and how they have a crucial and critical role in influencing, changing, and maintaining their organization’s culture.
Gessner, S. “Leadership and Culture: Lessons Learned from Bear Stearns”. Message given at the ERB 81st Annual Conference, October 22-24, 2008.
The following is an attempt to identify and set forth many (if not all) of the major components by which we lead and make decisions at Grace Community School.
1. Problem-solving is primarily relational, rather than policy-driven.
It is very important to have policies in place to provide structure, guidance, and consistency. Nonetheless, policy is not and cannot be the sole driving force of decision-making in a community of grace like GCS. Therefore, we will typically deal with major disciplinary problems and difficult issues through personal relationships and solutions that take into mind the individual situation and needs of the student, family, or staff member.
Decisions will inevitably be more messy and complex than would reference to hard-and-fast, bright line standards; however, God looks at and tends to work with the heart of the individual believer, and so should we. We will listen carefully, try to get as much information as possible, bathe the decision or solution in prayer, and apply God’s Word and wisdom given by Him to the particular situation.
This does not mean that we will ignore or discount policies and processes; they are important to providing structure and guidance. It simply means that we will not be policy-driven where doing so would work an injustice or fail to model biblical grace, wisdom, and mercy. At times, this will result in criticism from those who don’t have all the facts that we are acting inconsistently or arbitrarily. We are leaky vessels, and despite prayerful efforts, will sometimes get it wrong. At the end of the day, however, we must make decisions that reflect God’s character, and give the Holy Spirit a chance to work in the situation.
2. High level of trust.
Roland Barth identifies the importance of trust within a school’s culture:
The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else. If the relationships between administrators and teachers are trusting, generous, helpful, and cooperative, then the relationships between teachers and students, between students and students, and between teachers and parents are likely to be trusting, generous, helpful and cooperative. If, on the other hand, relationships between administrators and teachers are fearful, competitive, suspicious, and corrosive, then these qualities will disseminate throughout the school community.
Barth, R. “Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse”, Educational Leadership, Vol. 63, No. 6 (March 2006), p. 9.
Our first inclination is to trust people to do the right thing, to act as a follower of Christ and as a professional. When dealing with families, we will strive to treat them with love, as brothers and sisters in Christ. This means appealing to the presence of the Holy Spirit in everyone, rather than jumping to conclusions that those with whom we deal are operating from foolish or impure motives (while, of course, allowing for the reality that most of us operate from mixed motives most of the time, and completely impure motives sometimes).
Our faculty, staff and administrators are called by God to serve at GCS, and we will believe that they will step up and perform at a level and with a heart that glorifies God and represents GCS well. This also means that we will quickly forgive when those within the community fail to live up to those standards, and to seek forgiveness quickly when we fail. Finally, it means that we will tend to support ideas and requests from faculty and staff (professional development, resource requests) with minimal “red tape” or bureaucracy whenever possible, trusting that providing them with resources will allow us to become better than we once were.
3. Empowerment and support.
Everyone called to leadership at GCS has, by gifting, experience, and education, developed areas of competency that are unique and essential for their particular area of influence. Those called to leadership were so called because of their abilities as intrinsically motivated self-starters.
We will assume that these people know their area of influence better than those at other levels in the school. This means that we will recognize and respect the unique leadership roles of each member of the various leadership teams within the school. My role, and that of other leaders within the organization, is to equip and empower their team members, and let them lead. I will not micromanage, nor will others within the leadership structure.
We will expect them to use good, prayerful judgment and initiative, and we will support them in their decisions. We will understand and respect the fact that those closest to the decision are usually those best able and equipped to decide what to do; typically, we will make decisions based upon the best judgment of that person. There are many different ways to do a task or accomplish a goal well, and we will not quibble with the means by which the task or goal was completed, even if it is different from the way we would have done it (so long as the means are consistent with godly character).
4. A Body of Christ Approach to Leadership.
We believe in a shared governance approach to leadership that is consistent with the model Christ gave us through the Body. No leader’s role is more important than any others; this includes the Headmaster.
There is no hierarchy of importance on the Leadership Team, or in any other teams. We all bring complementary gifts, talents, and perspectives to the table, and we all need each other to carry out the mission, vision, and core values of the school. “Protecting one’s turf,” or “operating as silos or fiefdoms” is not welcome at GCS.
In short, there’s no place for silent dissent before a decision is made, and no place for vocal dissent after one is made. We must be willing to submit to the other members in their respective areas of expertise when appropriate, and to communicate with respect and gentleness when decisions have implications that impact other members of the team and their areas of responsibility. While engaging and inviting the perspectives of others may run the risk of looking like indecisiveness, leaders at GCS are willing to take that risk in order to give as many stakeholders as possible a “seat at the table.”
5. Grass Roots Idea Formation and Implementation.
We have a bias towards letting team members and others throughout the Grace Community develop and implement new ideas that will result in the overall betterment of the school. Whenever possible, we will give teachers and administrators the green light to explore, design, and implement new ideas and innovations (the learning differences program at the elementary school, developing the Toastmasters program, our current drop schedule, the Praying Parents of Grace, Cougar Backers, the Drum Line, Spirit Squad, and one-act play festival are notable examples).
When anyone within the community has an idea they would like to implement, leaders should tend to be an advocate and to say “yes”, unless there are strong reasons not to do so. At Grace, it doesn’t really matter where a good idea comes from, if it’s good. This “grass roots”, as opposed to “top down”, environment encourages the pursuit of excellence, becoming better than we once were.
6. A Willingness to Give, Rather than Take Credit.
A wise man said that there’s no end to what one can accomplish if one doesn’t care who takes the credit. We must nurture an environment in which all ideas are valid and important (although, obviously, not all are great ideas or ones that should be implemented). This is true no matter where the ideas come from.
7. Risk taking.
We are a community that realizes that growth and development, striving towards excellence requires taking appropriate steps of faith. Not all ideas are good ideas; however, we have a bias towards allowing one to pursue ideas, even if they carry with them some degree of risk.
Grass roots development, trusting people to do the right thing, and assigning time and resources to develop and implement ideas are often leaps of faith. Some ideas might end in failure, some ideas might seem to lead to unwanted precedents, and some might require unbudgeted financial resources. A school that is truly committed to excellence, becoming better than it once was and strives to make an impact in the 21st century must be willing to take risks, be unafraid of failure, and willing to grapple with unintended consequences.
8. A Learning Community.
In Romans 12: 2, the Apostle Paul encourages us to “not be conformed by this world, but be transformed by the renewing of” our minds. This renewal is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process.
In this 21st century economy, more than ever before our students will be expected to be lifetime learners, constantly learning new skills, concepts and ideas that will leave them equipped for a constantly changing environment. As teachers and administrators, we need to be modeling lifetime learning not only for the sake of our students, but also for our own benefit and professional development. Accordingly, we are a learning community.
9. Striving toward Excellence.
Excellence is the process of becoming better than we once were. We will never abandon our commitment to Grace’s mission and to our desire to see Christ glorified and worshipped in our hallways, classrooms, and meeting rooms.
We must be willing to change nearly everything else over time. Not all change is good, but a commitment to the process of change is essential for us to continue to strive toward excellence.
As leaders, we must be willing to lead the way for those who struggle with change, being loving, understanding, and patient, while at the same time being firm in our progress. We must also be willing to examine our own biases and prejudices, and be willing to set those aside when prudence and wisdom dictates that change is necessary.
10. A Community of Grace.
The defining characteristic of a Christian community like ours should be the way we love each other. For centuries, non-Christians and those outside the community have been attracted to and impacted by that love. The GCS community is no different.
Love for Christ and for each other should be evident the minute parents, students, staff members and strangers enter our buildings. Leaders do more to set this tone than anyone else. Accordingly, leaders should have a bias towards thinking the best of those they lead, not to be quick to ascribe sinister motives. They should acknowledge that every member of the community has value, and that no faculty member or administrator is more important to the success of the community than any other.
Leaders should be characterized by kindness, respect, and love. We will be inclined to give students and those we lead a second chance, open our doors to “one more” student, and give prospective families the benefit of the doubt if there is even a slight grace-filled reason to do so.
This will inevitably result in the perception that some students or staff members stay with us “too long”, that some students enrolled are not “Grace material”, and a predisposition to finding ways for members of our community to stay members. This will result in complicated admissions and complex relationships with students and families. The “tares” will always be among us, as Christ promised they would. But, our mission requires us to have such an attitude and position toward the one “lost sheep”, the “prodigal son”.
The points above are neither an edict nor a proclamation. They are really not a statement of anything new. It is merely an attempt to articulate what it is about our leadership culture that makes GCS different, what it is that makes people notice that we’re different when they come here for the first time. It is our hope that articulating some of the things that makes Grace special will attract others willing to join with us with their unique gifts and talents to make Grace even better. Is that you?