Moving a Graveyard – Changing School Culture

I remember seeing a cartoon, during my early teaching career, that said, “Moving a graveyard is easier than changing a school.”  As we are in the midst of a period of rapid change in many aspects of society including schools, I’ve been thinking lately about that quote and how it applies to my school in particular.

The quote is originally from President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, and it related to school curriculum change. The idea behind it was that, “You never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move a cemetery.” In the educational context, I have seen this with a particular process, structure, tool or teaching strategy; regardless of how loudly people complain about it, they are highly resistant to letting it go and moving to something new and different.  Clunky report card template – hate it! Want to design your own format or try this one that someone else has designed? No thanks! Huh?

This thinking can be frustrating to a teacher or administrator who has the desire for change but feels like the culture of the school discourages innovation. How do you start the move and deal with the “friends of the dead”? The book School Culture Rewired by Todd Whitaker and Steve Gruenert (ASCD) has practical suggestions. Reading over Spring Break, I grabbed on to one particular idea. 

“Nurture the positive subcultures in the school.” 

There is always a subculture, however small or quiet it may be. Maybe there are two people who volunteer for every workshop or learning opportunity. Maybe there are two teachers who want to have some time to observe each other or plan together. Maybe someone’s mentioned the desire to have a book study group, but doesn’t think anyone else would be interested. There’s a subculture! A principal or vice-principal can nurture that sprout by offering time, resources, or connections to others who share that passion. Talk about it in informal conversations, show enthusiasm for what they are doing, learn alongside, fan that flame.  A subtle shift will start to occur, where those who are having their passion validated will begin to feel confident and supported in their innovation. This will be felt by others in the school, and can create a ripple effect. They may think, “Maybe we are a school that is moving forward. Maybe it’s more invigorating than scary!”


What about those “friends of the dead”? There will always be resistors to any change. Unanimous agreement is not necessary in moving forward. There does need to be opportunity for consultation and shared learning around change, and have their concerns heard. We can discuss the success and advantages of the new, and hold it up in comparison to the old, and with time grow support so that a tipping point is reached. Patience, diligence, optimism and a dose of courage are required. 

What subcultures do you see in your school? What can you do to nurture them and start cultural change?

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