When organizations are mindful and deliberate about generating and maintaining a sense of teamwork and shared goals, team members are put at ease and more productive. The same is true for building a school culture and community for staff and students alike.
When I was named the leader of Follett’s K12 business, one of my first priorities was to create a team dedicated to improving the culture of the organization. We didn’t necessarily have a negative culture; however, it was clear that part of building a positive culture included making deeper connections to the communities we serve, both internally and externally.
As an education company, we are deeply aware of the challenges faced during the pandemic for educators (and organizations like ours) and that those challenges were overwhelming. We know all too well that has caused strain on the educational system, staff retention, and more. However, it has also given us all the opportunity to reflect on those practices and reimagine them.
I interviewed five different educators and compiled the top five ways schools and organizations alike have succeed in improving culture in their communities—despite the challenges.
1. Meaningful Connections
At Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, educators foster connections that encourage partners in their programs. Fran Glick, National School Library Program of the Year award winner, (who served at BCPS for many years,) says “Our programs lend themselves to creating spaces for input and participation from a variety of stakeholders. We can find collaborators and create partnerships within the community: public and community college libraries, museums, parent groups, foundations, and external partners can all contribute to ensuring that our school libraries are dynamic centers of each school. We know that school libraries build communities.”
Librarian Kate MacMillan from Napa Valley Unified School District in California adds, “Like all school libraries in California, adequate staffing and stable funding have always been an issue. To combat this, seven years ago, NVUSD implemented the One Card Program with the Napa County Library which provides all K-12 students with a digital full-service library card. This project guarantees access to all students and creates a “library community” that builds a strong bond with the county library, NVUSD school libraries, and the community.”
Connections are extremely important for all organizations. At Follett, I hold Ask Me Anything sessions twice a year where team members can literally ask me anything and I must answer each question “live” without the opportunity to review it ahead of time. While not every leader may be interested in putting themselves in the hot seat, the very act of putting myself out there and being vulnerable allowed me to connect with the team in a more meaningful way and answer the “pressing” questions.
2. Perception Matters
At Southwest Middle School in Florida, the public perception of school librarians, especially at the secondary level, is a challenge these days. The best way librarian Carrie Friday has been able to combat these challenges is to focus on what’s right – and regularly share the great things happening in the school library. “I post about the lesson we did for the day, I share photos of student creations, pictures of book club, or success stories of students who have seen success in this space,” Friday said. “It’s much harder for the community to believe what they hear or read when they’ve seen the magic that happens in here. It’s exhausting to constantly answer questions about book challenges and address what people hear or answer questions about new legislation but at the end of the day, this work matters so much and these kids remind me of that every day. Their love for our library helps me press on and do what’s right for kids.”
3. Meaningful Feedback
In Iowa, at Van Meter Consolidated School District, Future Ready Librarian spokesperson and librarian Shannon Miller explains their school library is the heart of their culture. “Our library is a very special part of our school community. We build the culture and community within the library with our students, teachers, and families at the center of everything we do. When our students come to the library, we want them to feel important and safe, and to be seen and heard within the books and resources we have in our collection. We also want to be a resource for our families and to support them in fostering a love of reading and learning within their homes. Through our library’s social media, newsletters, and weekly updates, we can celebrate the amazing activities happening within the library and the books and resources we have available for our students and teachers.”
Friday agrees with Miller. “Building culture and community in a school library can be challenging for a variety of reasons but the very best thing I’ve done is to continue to make the space a place where kids want to be,” Friday shared. “I present engaging lessons. I spotlight really amazing books. I open up in the mornings before school and let students just be and hang out. I work one-on-one with some of our students who are struggling with academics and behavior. I wave and say hi to the kids at class change. I wear ridiculous costumes to school. I tell jokes at lunch. I’m hosting James Ponti for an author visit at the end of February, so we are hyping up his book and doing book club meetings during lunches so kids can read City Spies. We even zoomed with him so he could say hi to the kids. Having an author tell your students just how special their school library is goes a long way with kids.”
Similarly at Follett, feedback allows us to make better business decisions and remain focused on the areas that are most important to our customers and ultimately, your students. During the pandemic we paused our customer advisory groups for all the reasons you can imagine. Pausing was necessary for us to navigate the challenges associated with running a business during the pandemic and providing feedback to Follett was not high on a priority list for our customers. Emerging from the pandemic it became clear it was more important than ever that we seek more meaningful feedback from librarians, teachers and district leaders. So, we took advantage of the ability to run focus groups and customer advisory meetings remotely.
4. All-In Relationships
So says 2021 Utah Teacher of the Year, John Arthur! “Spend quality time with each student, laugh with colleagues, listen to families, and love on your own! Strong cultures and communities spring naturally when you prioritize people, and, especially in these challenging times, we need our people and the bubbles we build to shelter us from the nonsense and noise.”
For Follett, supporting every team member includes supporting their families and the community. Recently, we opened an employee bookstore where employees can buy popular books for less than $5 a title. All proceeds are donated to organizations that give back to the McHenry County, Illinois community where the majority of our team members live. This creates a deep connection not only with our community, but with our team members alike.
5. Foster Teamwork
Back in Van Meter, Iowa, Miller kicked off the new year with a Library Advisory Board. “This will be made up of our library staff, teachers, administrators, parents, and even students,” Miller told me. “This will help us continue to grow as we advocate for a strong library program for every single student within our school community. I am excited for the support this will not only bring to our library, but also to me, as the district teacher librarian.”
Connections are vital, according to Glick from Baltimore Public Schools. “We build connections within the incredible network of school librarians and educators in our country. There are professionals who are engaged in this work and the collective power to grow and learn WITH and FROM each other is happening in schools and school libraries and is in all of us,” she said. “Our professional learning networks are in our regional groups, in other states, on social media, in professional literature sources, and presenting at conferences. School librarians are a networked profession and more than ever we can stand together to advocate for our profession and school libraries. We know that strong school libraries contribute to student achievement, and we uphold and affirm the many ways in which we do so.”
Culture Takes Shape
Bottom line, no matter the shape or size of your organization, transforming culture cannot happen overnight, it takes more than a leader to make change… it takes all of us. Clearly, it’s best to focus on one or two culture improvements to start (even consider micro-improvements to portion of the world you have direct influence) so you’re not overwhelmed and can do them to the best of you and your team’s ability!