Top tips to develop a positive school culture

Spike Cook, Ed.D

Spike Cook, Ed.D. is principal at Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to this role, Dr Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipalPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognised as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight.

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Originally published 24th July 2017. Originally published 24th July 2017.

As a school leader it is inevitable that you will be required to implement change. There are a range of possibilities for the change; the mundane to the kind of change that keeps you up for endless nights plotting, planning and organising. The big question is, how do you keep it balanced?

No matter our position, we have all been faced with the concept of creating change. To personally prepare for organisational change, I read all of the leading authors from the field, such as Whittaker, Fullan, Senge, Argyris, Kouses, Posner, and even Gladwell. These teachers, along with real life experiences, have shaped my philosophy on change. Time has taught me that sometimes change occurs because it is imposed, sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes it is just time. Yet, I have realised that it is not always the organisation that has to change… oftentimes it is the leader!

Over the past few years I have had to expand my knowledge of leadership and change while keeping life in balance. It has been easy to fall victim to the “Cycle of Sacrifice” process of prioritising everyone and everything besides yourself (Boyatis and McKee, 2005)! How have I addressed this “Cycle of Sacrifice”? Quite simply, through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness, the practice of being aware of moment by moment situations, keeping an open mind to your surroundings, and taking quiet moments of self-reflection.

A few years back I was able to interview Kirsten Olson and Valerie Brown on the PrincipalPLN podcast. Olson and Brown are the co-authors of the book, Mindful School Leader. The book discusses the practice “It has been easy to fall victim to prioritising everyone and everything besides yourself.”of mindfulness for educators, a relatively new practice in education, but an established practice for centuries in eastern philosophies, yoga, and meditation. Olson and Brown gathered anecdotal information from school leaders throughout the globe who are all practicing the art of mindfulness to combat the stress, sacrifice and malaise that plagues the profession, as well as providing research on the success of the practice. The book was highly informational, and I would recommend it for any school leader.

It was a great privilege to practice “mindfulness” and listen to the authors speak on the art and positive effects of this area. As a school leader, I was truly intrigued by the information that was being imparted. I then finally asked the one question that popped up in my head: “So what would be the three things we could try this week to practice mindfulness at work?” Without hesitation, Brown responded with these suggestions:

1. Take your lunch and just eat. Don’t do anything but eat, and taste what you are eating.
2. Breathe – Focus on your breathing a few times throughout the day.
3. Look at the sky for one minute each day.

It’s funny that two responses needed to be mentioned. Yet how many of us actually focus on breathing, or take 10 minutes to just enjoy our lunch? And looking at the sky? When was the last time you actually looked at the sky for one minute during work? For me, it was never.

What has been my process with this change to being mindful and how have I benefitted? What have I done? Why have I chosen this path? I figured I would list the process in order to reflect.

  • Define the problem – Balance/unbalance in leadership.
  • Research possible solutions – Mindfulness, less screen time, exercise.
  • Model the way – Practice mindfulness, positivity, balance.
  • Inspire a shared vision - Talk with the staff about my changes.
  • Visit best practices or shining examples – Find staff members who practice and highlight their accomplishments.
  • Allocate proper funding – Schedule someone to visit the staff to train them on mindfulness.
  • Challenge the process – Be sure to advocate staff to take of themselves.
  • Exude passion for the solution and why we need to address the problem – Serve as a constant reminder that we need balance in our professional lives.
  • Make mistakes – Acknowledge problems in yourself along the way!
  • Learn from the mistakes – Talk with staff about what you have learned!
  • Enable others to act – Encourage staff to be mindful and to integrate in the classroom!
  • …and finally, get out of the way!

Here are some Practical Actions I took as a result of mindfulness:

My Attitude is Gratitude

Every day, for the most part, beginning October 4th 2016, I wake up and complete a very basic Gratitude List. Focusing on five things I was grateful for from the previous day. This was very difficult in the beginning because I was focusing on the wrong things. However, eventually my focus improved and the journal began to help me overcome the stress and anxiety of being a father, and a principal.

Those in the field of education can empathise with the stress and demands of our profession. Whether it is federal, state or local initiatives, fights, bullying, curriculum, poverty, etc, “I wake up and complete a very basic Gratitude List.”there are challenges that must be overcome. As an example, prior to doing the Gratitude List I would be extremely disappointed when a fight would occur in the school. I would feel hopeless, the entire day was ruined because I had failed to prevent the fight from occurring. Since doing the Gratitude List I can put things in a better perspective. Although still disappointed, I realise that there were 1,100 other students who came to school and did not fight. It was about realising that there were thousands upon thousands of interactions with students that did not result in a fight.

As you can see, the Gratitude List can make small, important changes in your perspective. As an educator you will be transformed through gratitude, and pretty soon you may even have your students and teachers writing gratitude lists!

Walking 10,000 Steps

Prior to practicing mindfulness, I was famous for talking about all the things I used to do. I used to skateboard, run, play soccer, basketball.... the list goes on and on. Since those days injury and age have begun to slow me down and limit my activity. This led me to feeling frustrated and added to my stress. Then I began to focus on what I could do: walk. Now my goal every day is to walk 10,000 steps. This simple activity becomes my sense of accomplishment and allows me to decompress. Walking allows me to talk to friends, listen to music or podcasts or just walk. Although there are many days when I do not surpass the 10,000 steps, it still gives me something to strive for.


Yoga for balancing anxiety and pressures is a well-known remedy, but many of us just feel like there just isn’t enough time, or are not sure how to begin. So I make the time, and have been the “new person” in all types and styles of classes. But I’ve found the type I enjoy the most is simply showing up to any class. No matter who is teaching or what style I am practicing, the benefits are noticeable. I never feel embarrassed by challenging positions, because we all are students in one form. Besides, I feel calmer and more relaxed after each session, and I am able to trickle that back into the school creating a calmer environment.

In conclusion

As with any new change, there will be those who will get on board, others will criticise and some wait to see results. Only time will tell if these tools and philosophies, to a more “mindful” approach will pay dividends. In the meantime, I am “being the change I want to see” and helping my staff to become more mindful and balanced in their approaches too.

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