How’s Your School Culture Today?

There’s a story of two young fish swimming along a coral reef and they pass an old-timer fish.  The old-timer says, “Good afternoon, boys.  How’s the water today?”  The young fish nod politely and keep swimming along.  After a minute, one fish turns to the other and asks, “What’s water?”

What is water?  A very similar question is – what is culture?  In the abstract, culture is the set of norms, expectations and experiences that we live by.  Culture is so commonplace; we often don’t even notice it.  Culture in organizations (such as schools) is like water to fish.  It surrounds us and we are breathing it in, but often don’t even realize it is there; not usually until it bumps into a conflicting set of norms and expectations.

A few years ago, I visited a couple East African countries to do some service, and fortunately, before the trip, we were encouraged by the trip organizers to learn about differing cultural norms between the U.S. and the peoples of these countries.  I really enjoyed the experience and was able to connect with our hosts, because I suspended my judgment that my culture was the norm that others should be judged against.

One big advantage that we humans have over fish; we have the cognitive ability to step outside of our culture and try to observe it with fresh eyes.

So, think about your school or college’s culture.  What is it like for the students, for their family members, for your teachers, for your administrators, and for your business and community partners?

As we are working to transform schools to better serve our students, we need to step out of the water and look back at it with fresh eyes.  Think about how clearly you can see when you put on a pair of goggles and then look back underwater.  Change management guru Ron Heifitz uses another metaphor for the observation process.  He suggests that we are all on the dance floor interacting with our dance partner and others but we can’t really see the big picture.  He talks about the value of getting off of the dance floor, going up to a balcony, and then looking back down on the dance floor to see what’s really going on.

As part of our Pathways System Resource Kit, I developed a side-by-side comparison of what a typical U.S. high school culture tends to be vs. the kind of school culture you may want to be developing.

Take a look at the comparative cultures described in the table below.  And then click the “Download Resource” button below to download a completed copy, along with another blank copy so you and your teammates can discuss and do your own analysis.

Try to get out of the water, or get off the dance floor, and take a fresh look.  Working with you and your stakeholders, identify the culture you really want, and then start planning the strokes to start swimming toward that better destination!

Hans Meeder is President of the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T) ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance, and tools. These strategies help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

Download Resource