This blog post originally appeared in the Jan 12th Catholic School Matters newsletter

Over Christmas break, I finally read Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson’s Shaping School Culture.  I say “finally” because I’ve seen references to the work for years and it’s probably been on my book queue longer than any other book.  The first edition came out 20 years ago and it’s easy to see how its influence on the latest generation of school culture books, notably Tim Cook’s Architects of Catholic Culture.

Perhaps the greatest insight was the “bifocal principal” which they define as someone who “thinks structurally and symbolically.”  I find their emphasis on structure and symbol much more engaging than what is traditionally defined as management/leadership.  How we create meaning for our school communities is symbolic leadership and encompasses the history, rituals, ceremonies, heroes, and stories we tell.  Inspired by this insight, I am challenging the Montana Catholic school leaders to come up with a story every month for our meetings.  This month, they were challenged to come up with a two minute story about an inspirational teacher.

As Deal and Peterson say, “In this book we examine the varied ways symbolic leaders shape culture to create a cohesive, meaningful, nurturing, social milieu for teachers to teach and students to learn” (17).  How many times have you heard Catholic school teachers say, “I teach here because I am happier even though I make less money?”  This is perhaps where we could double down and look for improvement—by strengthening and articulating our symbolic leadership.

The bifocal principal must remain focused on both on day-to-day structural tasks as well as the symbolic leadership tasks.  In addition, Deal and Peterson challenge school leaders to enter into paradox.  “Very few issues in education are either-or, and principals who deal with paradox will find their jobs much less stressful and more rewarding.”  (xiii).

The other insight which really stood out was their take on the traditional complaint about schools: “if only they run like businesses.”  How many times have you heard this?  Deal and Peterson turn this on its head and encourage schools to act more like successful mission-driven businesses, infusing their work with meaning, passion, and purpose.

Take a look at this article about the Top 20 business transformations of the last decade and you’ll see plenty of examples of symbolic leadership.  Or read this article from The Atlantic about the breakaway Catholic sect who have created a withdrawal experiment in Kansas.  They have used symbolic leadership to shape the meaning of their world.  Another great culture article I saw lately was about creating strong rules to build a strong culture.

Perhaps the best example of a culture article is Kathleen Porter-Magee’s essay “Catholic on the Inside” from the Manhattan Institute.  Porter-Magee focuses on the values which shape Catholic schools—objective truth, every person created in God’s image, the habits of virtue, and the foundation in something larger than individual achievement.  It’s an amazing essay and deserves your attention.

Shaping School Culture is full of examples of school leaders who have defined, built, and strengthened their school cultures.