Vallejo speaker urges schools to avoid 'toxic cultures'

By Lanz Christian Bañes/Times-Herald staff writer /
Posted:   02/08/2013 01:03:04 AM PST

Educators who wish to change their schools for the better must first take a look at themselves. 

And that goes for both teachers and administrators, said Anthony Muhammad, a former principal and an author and education consultant who gave a lecture Thursday about transforming school culture. 

"Are you prepared to turn your window to a mirror? It's easier to look outside a transparent piece of glass and describe everything you see wrong with the outside world," said Muhammad, who as principal turned around a middle school outside Detroit, doubling student proficiency in state assessments in five years. 

Muhammad spoke to a crowd of mostly teachers, principals and staff of the Vallejo City Unified School District at Touro University. His lecture was organized by both the district and the university. 

Muhammad spent most of his time describing healthy and toxic school cultures and giving advice on how to avoid or mitigate the latter. 

It is important that structural changes find healthy environments in which to grow, Muhammad said. He compared structural changes to seeds, and school environments to soil. 

"If you take great strategies and plant them in an environment that's full of scandals, politics and human garbage, how do you expect that seed to grow?" Muhammad said, noting that too much attention is spent on strategies and not enough on culture. 

Muhammad said that while state and federal governments and district leadership influence school culture, the most pivotal relationship is between teachers and site administrators such as principals. 

Site administrators must give formal direction and be willing to have collegial, productive conversations with their staff. They must also provide adequate support to teachers, especially those fresh from universities. 

"Don't throw that teacher into the shark tank and expect her to wade through shark-infested waters. Give her some help," Muhammad said, describing teacher mentoring programs as an option. 

However, teachers must not contribute to toxic cultures by gossiping in the lounge or parking lot and endlessly complaining, Muhammad said. 

"The root of a toxic culture ... is frustration. A highly frustrated staff becomes a highly unproductive staff," Muhammad said. 

Both teachers and administrators should challenge each other to be better in order to effectively educate every child, he added. 

"Progressive organizations reflect on their problems and collaborate to resolve them. Toxic cultures are flabbergasted by their problems, describe them repeatedly and find other people to blame for their problems," Muhammad said. 

Contact Lanz Christian Bañes at (707) 553-6833 or Follow him on Twitter @LanzTimesH.