#258 – Recalibrate the Culture, with Jimmy Casas

Unpacking Education January 31, 2024 54 min

In this episode, Jimmy Casas, an award-winning principal and leadership coach, joins us to talk about recalibrating the culture of a school. As we dig into his new book, Recalibrate the Culture: Our Work, Our Why, Our Values, Jimmy reminds us that “in only positive cultures can kids really thrive to their full potential.”

This book is the follow-up to his bestseller, Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes., and in it, Jimmy explores ways to develop the type of positive culture that both students and staff need to fully succeed. Our conversation revolves around four key premises that support developing a culture in a school: leading from a core set of values, cultivating a community of leaders, seeing the culture through the eyes of others acknowledging that average exists in every organization. When implemented well, these pillars allow people to reach their potential, and they guide the actions that can be used to put these premises into practice.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

This book is dedicated to every educator who sat in the interview chair and visualized themselves changing the trajectory of the life of a child. I hope you never doubt your impact. Keep believing. This profession needs you. Our kids need you. We need you.

Jimmy Casas, from the dedication to his book, Recalibrate the Culture: Our Work, Our Why, Our Values

More Than Words

“Culturize really is a behavioral framework,” says our guest, Jimmy Casas. “And it’s based on four core values, and to me, values are really behaviors.” Rather than a mission statement painted on a school wall, culture results from the actions of the people in a building. This is what leads to real change. Jimmy reiterates this, saying, “I don’t care what the words on the wall say. I want to walk into a school, and I want to see the behaviors that resemble the words on those walls, that match the words on the walls, that mirror the words on the walls.” He says that he sees “behaviors as values.”

Throughout our conversation, we dig into what these behaviors can look like and how members of a school community can work collectively to build a strong, positive school culture through their collective action. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Jimmy Casas is an educator, leadership coach, author, and speaker. He has been an educator for over 30 years, serving 22 years as a school leader, including 14 years as principal of Bettendorf High School in Iowa. Under his leadership, Bettendorf was named one of the Best High Schools in the country three times by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Jimmy was named the 2012 Iowa Secondary Principal of the Year and was selected as runner-up for the 2013 NASSP National Secondary Principal of the Year. Jimmy is also the author of nine books.
  • The Interview Chair: Jimmy begins the podcast by referencing the dedication section in his book, which calls back to an educator’s job interview. He says, “I’m a big believer that that’s the best version of all of us, right, when we sat in that interview chair.” He adds that the pressures of the job sometimes turn us into someone we “never wanted to become.” When we go astray and lose sight of who we were when we began our jobs, we can use his four-part framework to help us regain that positive perspective when we face challenges in our careers.
  • More to Say: Jimmy wrote this follow-up to an earlier book of his, Culturize, in part because after releasing that book, he continued to learn about what it took to be successful. He says, “I kept evolving. I kept growing as a leader.” With these new perspectives and insights, he felt that he had more to say. He also wanted to offer practice strategies and a more systematic approach to developing school culture.
  • Relationships First: The foundation of every healthy culture always goes back to relationships. Jimmy says, “Without the relationships, it’s really hard to build trust, and it’s really hard to build empathy.” To make this happen, we must spend quality time with people.
  • Values as Behaviors: “. . . To me, values are really behaviors,” says Jimmy. He adds, “How are we going to behave in the school environment to really impact that school environment in a really positive way?”
  • From Vision to Behavior: To retain our focus, Jimmy suggests considering, “What is your vision, and more importantly, how are you going to behave in order to achieve that vision?”
  • When We Fall Short: Jimmy acknowledges that we’re all human and that we may all fall short of our goals at times. In a strong culture, members hold each other accountable and feel empowered to have the hard conversations. For this climate to exist, organizations should have a common understanding of what that means and how to approach those situations without causing defensiveness.
  • Collective Commitments: Jimmy says, “I think it’s important to give people a voice and to put in a process that gives everybody a voice to say, ‘Hey, collectively now, let’s see if we can all come to consensus and agreement of all these values all these individuals in this organization believe.’” This means narrowing perspectives down to a collective agreement that is defined and lived together. This leads to “collective efficacy.”
  • Empathy: By going back to our core values, we can get through challenging situations and stay focused on what we believe is important. It helps us through the times when we must ask, “How do you like the kid that’s hard to like? How do you like a teacher that’s hard to like?” It can help us step into their situation and better understand why they are behaving the way they are.
  • Transparency: “I think effective leaders are strategic leaders,” says Jimmy. “They’re not manipulative. They’re not disingenuous. They’re actually very transparent, which means they explain everything.”
  • Slowing Down: With so many decisions to make, teachers and school leaders often move very quickly. Jimmy says that the value of having a framework is that “frameworks slow us down.” This is important, he says, because “when we’re moving so quickly, we get sloppy.”
  • Negative Undercurrents: “Undercurrents are anything negative that hurts the culture or hurts the morale of staff,” says Jimmy. “The undercurrent is what hurts your culture. It’s what frustrates you. It’s what’s exhausting. It’s what hurts your morale.” He explains that, in his experience, we are often the cause of our own undercurrents. He believes that it’s essential to self-reflect. He adds, “If I can avoid the undercurrent, then I bring a better version of myself. I’m healthier. I’m not as exhausted. I’m not as stressed out.”
  • Anonymous Surveys: Jimmy believes that we should eliminate anonymous surveys. In fact, he says, they are often a symptom of a poor culture. Leaders who feel surveys must be anonymous often have a staff who are reluctant to express their true feelings. This unwillingness to share the truth in the open often happens in cultures where people don’t feel trusted or fear retaliation for expressing their opinions.
  • Four Key Words: Jimmy says the four most powerful words in leadership are: “I need your help.” He suggests, “Quit trying to do this crazy job by yourself because when you go do it by yourself, you’re going to create undercurrents because you’re not allowing others to help you see those undercurrents.”
  • The Importance of Trust: “Culture is so important,” says Jimmy. “It’s the most important thing because without that, I don’t care if you have a process to give people a voice, they’re not going to take it because they don’t trust.”
  • 1–2–4 Process: One way to give everyone a voice is to structure the input process. In the 1–2–4 process, begin with individual self-reflection. Then, move on to sharing in pairs. From there, pairs share with other pairs in groups of four. Each group of four ultimately shares their consensus back to the full group to develop a shared vision or understanding.
  • Avoid the Perimeter: The perimeter is a place where you stand, looking in at a problem from the outside. It’s like putting yourself outside of the problem and removing yourself as a potential cause of the problem. Jimmy says that “it’s a dangerous place to live” because when we’re on the perimeter, we don’t look internally for the cause of our stress. He offers encouragement to “get off the perimeter and start self-reflecting.” All too often, he adds, we are the cause of the undercurrents in our lives, and we must look inside if we want to improve our conditions and the culture around us.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How would you describe the culture of your workplace?
  • What are your core values?
  • Do your core values align with the core values of your workplace?
  • How can everyone have a voice in your school?
  • Do behaviors mirror the mission and value statements of your school?
  • What collective commitments does your school share?
  • What undercurrents potentially exist in your work environment?
  • How might you strengthen the culture of your school or classroom?

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