'I vs. They' – Mind the Gap: Tips in Educational Leadership

Sean Slade and Erich Bolz
August, 2023

Originally published in the CEE Blog, this article discusses the overarching influence culture has in schools and how leaders play a key role.

Lincoln Riley, incoming football coach at the University of Southern California, states, “When you care about the team the most, it’s funny how the individual things work out for you.” This quote resonates with the sentiment in our first blog in this series. Schools who first establish a strong school culture of trust see their systems and structures take hold.

In fact, the USC football program structure wants for nothing. It boasts a world-class training facility, lures experienced coaches to campus to win games, and gives their athletes every resource they need to succeed at the Stevens Academic Center. To add to the mix, there is an enviable player recruiting territory nearby and generous alumni supporting the team. It should come as no surprise USC attracts top talent as a top 50 school in the world.

Yet, somehow, a recent lack of success plagues the hallowed USC football program. What’s missing? A winning culture.

We have all seen examples in sports where cohesive teams eclipse superior talent. The players commit to the organization’s mission and believe in and support one another. As a result, they brim with confidence when they take the field and execute their game plan.

The “superior” losing teams suffer from an environment in which players’ individual concerns surpass their commitment to the team.

Are there structures in place for you yet success seems elusive? What happens in the schools and communities we serve? It turns out we behave in the same ways as the USC football program.

Despite the structures put in place to foster success, schools who have it all (ample resources, accomplished leaders, skilled teachers and support from families and the community) can still fail as a system. The reason is this; a culture of isolation at the classroom level exists. To combat this, The Center for Educational Effectiveness (CEE) staff surveys measures what we call the “I vs. They” gap. This gap represents the difference in what a person believes about themselves (positive for most individual teachers) and what they perceive about their colleagues’ behavior (less positive). We judge ourselves by our intent and others by their behavior.

This gap is an indicator of the depth or strength of trust. For example, a Middle School staff I vs. They gap of 25% or more would prompt further investigation. The bigger the gap, the bigger the impact on the school’s culture.

If you are ready to move from anecdotal evidence to research-based data, you are well on your way to improving your school culture.

But what if you have never measured the “I vs. They” gap?

No one needs to recreate the wheel. Organizations with proven systems can help you gather data and identify vital areas for improvement, and show how that gap manifests in daily interactions or teaching activities. USC counts on and enlists specialists and experts to support the entire team.

We can see the value of bringing in outsiders in the recent EdSurge article, School Leaders Take Note: Teacher Care Is a Lot More Than Self-Care. Sean shares: “We must stop expecting educators to save themselves and instead start to address the group climate and culture of our schools. We must improve the environments that educators find themselves in everyday and, at a minimum, decrease the stress and increase the supports available in that setting. Collaboratively, we must start to address the systems that we have helped foster that have caused much of the stress in the first place.”

So, what do we do?

The 38 schools identified in CEE’s Characteristics of Positive Outlier Schools study have shown us one way to begin. They started by building a foundation of trust among all stakeholders. This distinct focal point not only changed minds and hearts, but it also became the catalyst for significant cultural change.

With your culture data in hand, there is no reason to tackle your improvement efforts alone. Principal Greg Austin, from Brewster Middle School in Eastern Washington (a Positive Outlier School) underscores the need for his network of skilled practitioners on the Outliers in Education Podcast. Besides his mission driven staff, he does not think he or the school would be where they are now without Joan, the school coach provided by the State as a designated low-performing school (bottom 5%). She pointed out that what the school was doing was not working. Greg needed to stop what they were doing and start over. Building the school culture was primary. One of the big factors was implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). A stunning outcome followed. Office referrals plummeted from 700+ to 36 in one year’s time.

Education is not a solo sport. BTS Spark has helped 13,000 school leaders and, by extension, 7 million students fill a gap and the increasing need for leadership development and coaching.

Changing the culture means changing mindsets. We often assume that school leaders have the skills and mindsets to make this shift. They may not know what to expect when taking on this challenge. School leaders have been expert teachers and even great instructional leaders, but while this can aid teaching and learning individually, it rarely translates to systemic changes in the culture. Coaches help school leaders focus on new or latent skills that are already there but may need maturing. Often, coaches provide a rare space for the school leader to develop new mindsets that focus on growing the school culture.

How school leaders interact and react affects the culture of the school. Self-reflection on their own leadership abilities and a conscious shift from ‘I’ (the leader) to ‘They’ (the school) are the first steps in leading change. In a 2020 research study undertaken by BTS Spark during the first year of the Covid pandemic, and amid school closures and reopening’s, found that leaders who could shed the superhero syndrome and admit vulnerability, express humility, were better able to make decisions, engage others and bring the school community together. It was counterintuitive that those who could admit uncertainty could also grow the strength and agency of their teams to better solve problems. This was a distinct I vs. They leadership scenario. By showing their human side, these leaders could better engage and empower their school teams, allowing them space to make suggestions, provide insight, and solve issues.

During the pandemic, some of the most extraordinary school leaders said, “I don’t know” and had the inner self-confidence to be comfortable showing vulnerability and asking for help. They let go of any attachment to being the ultimate decision maker and trusted their teams to respond accordingly. Successful schools had teams who were empowered to take ownership and made change happen because they knew the right things to do for teachers, students, and parents. They could move quickly and were open to more innovative ways to solve problems.

Educational Leadership for a New Era: The Uncommon Sense of MESSY Leadership

This change of mindset from I to They, from the superhero leader to the team leader, from the leader with certainty to the leader with humility, is the first step for school leaders to build trust, foster engagement and empower staff. Teams change, and the culture follows.

It is well within reach of any school leader to shift the culture of an entire school or district. It takes daily discipline and perseverance to transform a school’s culture, but it doesn’t have to take a long time. The actions and reactions of the school leaders lay the groundwork for shifting a school’s culture.