Auckland principal Sarah Martin shared how to promote a collaborative school culture, including the importance of looking at teacher survey data. Principal Martin talked to Edthena founder and CEO Adam Geller in part 1 of this 4-part series.

Watch the video on not leaving school culture to chance above, or read the transcript below.

Don’t leave your school culture to chance

– [Adam Geller] Welcome to another PL Together Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. Today, we’re talking with Sarah Martin. She is the founding principal of Stonefield School in Auckland, New Zealand, and also the first guest of PL Together to join us from outside the United States, Sarah, which I didn’t tell you before we started talking. So thank you so much for joining us.

– [Sarah Martin] Oh, thank you very much for the opportunity.

– [Adam] Well, I’m excited to talk with you, not only because you have experience leading a school, but also because you bring a different lens to a lot of these topics than US-based educators may be thinking about or hearing about every single day. Even though I think in our education systems, we share so much, which is of course the passion and the focus on supporting student learning. So there’s been a lot of challenges in the past 18 months, two years that have helped us rethink the way schools are operating. And I guess I want to start and ask you, how do we kind of check in together on how we’re doing as an organization and how we’re doing in building our culture and maintaining our culture?

– [Sarah] So I’d say probably as a leader, the deliberate work on our organizational culture just can’t be left to chance. And I’d say it’s probably my most important work. And I think it’s in three phases, really. There’s very much in establishing that culture and being intentional about the culture you’re wanting to create. There’s maintaining the culture. And as you say, that really important part of checking in on the culture. So right now in Auckland, we’re in our fifth week of our fifth lockdown in COVID, and probably checking in on that culture in different ways and checking how people are going. One little technique I’m using this week is when I’m out on my wellbeing walk after the day is done. And I’m just picking up the phone, ringing, say five of our 70 staff at night. And just saying, actually, how are you and how are you really? So I think being really connected to the people and seeing how people are going, I’ve got huge insight on how they are as individuals, but also across the organization. When I can summarize the trends across the voices, we’re very evidenced in how we check in on organizational culture in our place. In fact, next Tuesday, we’ve just been organizing the questions that we’ll ask in our annual survey. And a lot of those are related to our organizational culture. You know, would you recommend Stonefield school as a good place to work? What’s the morale like? Are there high levels of trusts? We dig into a lot around team function, et cetera. So there’s those formal ways of doing that checking in, but also I think that the informal, so once onsite, I love to just sit next to different people in the staff room as an example, and to really understand, you know, what’s one thing you’d like to see changed and to actively seek feedback on particular areas that we’re really interested in hearing how well we’re doing.

– [Adam] I like how you wove in a pro tip for the school leader while also presenting the tip for the school leader, which was when you’re on your wellness walk, that’s when you do your check-ins. I like how, you know, that really highlights the fact that the school leader is in the community of the educators as well. And if the school leader isn’t well, then they’re not gonna be able to support a well and high-functioning staff of teachers.

– [Sarah] Oh, absolutely. I think modeling that’s absolutely critical. And I think too, when I reflect on organizational culture, there’d be two other elements I think are critical to the health of that culture. And one is hearing people speaking up and speaking up about things that sometimes might be hard for a leader to hear and listen to. And I also think the other really critical piece is showing authenticity and being really, really vulnerable. So there’s been some challenging times for me in this lock down and I’ll quite openly share to give others permission to say, actually, yeah, I’ve had some good days and some not so good days. And how do we move above the line when those, you know, the going gets a little bit tough sometimes. We’re all human, and I think showing that human side as a leader is really, really critical.

– [Adam] You’re describing a little bit of a culture that promotes and encourages them. It makes it safe to share. It’s kind of that that end goal that many leaders might want to head toward. But if you’re someone who is working on building that culture, laying that foundation, do you have any kind of helpful starting hints if you will, on creating that safety for your staff members, to be honest with you and to really tell you what’s on their minds related to the functioning of the school and the school community.

– [Sarah] Absolutely. A couple of things come to mind as I’m listening to your question. And I remember a few times, in this organization and in previous organizations, where we ask people not to talk about the ultimate organizational culture, but to draw it. So if you were to draw and use a metaphor to explain that the organizational culture that you ultimately long to belong to, what does that look like? And then we actually ask, if you can imagine that at one end of the bridge, the other end of the bridge saying, and what does the current culture look like today? And I think that allows them gives beautiful permission to talk about what’s our current reality, but what’s the future state we’re hoping to achieve and what are we going to need to do together to be able to get there. So I think some of the how strategies that have helped us to move from current state to future state is to surface and really, really hear the voices that has led us to establishing shared language. And I think the power of those mentors and the way we do things around here, and we articulate our beliefs. I’ll give you a tangible example. You know, listen, sincerely value the voices, was one of our values and mindsets that emerged out of being a startup organization many years ago. We wanted to think big, be brave, and remain edgy. We go, not ego; actively collaborate was another mantra that helped to articulate those, those beliefs. So I think when there’s a shared language, it’s very, very compelling that you’re either in or not. Thinking of a organizational culture I walked into where the culture wasn’t as healthy, you know. You’d walk into a room and it would fall silent or doors would be closed for conversations to be had. You know, when we developed a shared language, I went in as a deputy principal in that place, one of the key mantras that came to be was go to the source. So if you have a harder to have conversation or you, you actually need to go to that individual, if anything’s going to come, right. So the second idea that comes to mind is a practical one, would be probably the number one capability we spend the most time developing in our staff would be their ability to do what we call sense-making and what we mean by that as like the harder to have conversation that will open to learning conversation is many ways we can describe that. But really what that is about is two people having a point of difference. So if you’ve got a different experience or different value or a different mental model, a different perspective on something, there’s a beautiful opportunity for two people to lean into that potential conflict. Well, I actually just see it as a point of difference to engage as a learner. And when we engage in those opportunities, further learning occurs. So I love to see in the middle, if you like, is a point of difference. If you’re willing and I’m willing to engage and to perspective-take and to seek to understand one another’s point of view, we both come away better off. So how do we, we grow that capability? I think it’s really, really critical.

– [Adam] I like how I asked you, you know, how do we, how do we make it safe to share something hard? And there wasn’t necessarily the easy fix, which there never is. Right? But that, that kind of having the shared, as you said, the shared language, right, but in a way, being able to offer maybe feedback that isn’t as glowing, but rooting it in that shared language, sounds like it’s, it can enable staff to feel more comfortable to share when things aren’t aligned to that end goal, that everybody’s kind of stacked hands on.

– [Sarah] You know, I think one other thing I’d say Adam, too, is that when our data shows up or things aren’t good, we don’t shy away from that. So we say, we asked, you said, we heard, so now that. So there was a time, probably three or four years ago, where I wasn’t happy with the survey data. And I thought, gosh, I wonder what’s really going on here. So shared that data, always share the data back, but we dug into it to say, what are the things that are getting up your nose, or under your skin I think is better in the U.S., and what potentially is becoming undiscussable. There’s a beautiful Barth, Roland article, four pages, and it talks about organizational culture and the undiscussables and how you can correlate that to the health of the organizational culture. So if we gave people permission on stickies to talk about the undiscussables, what are they? What are the things getting at your nose? And we had, we put all our dirty laundry out to air and we organized that to get the themes. And then we took action around what we are going to do to make our organizational culture healthier. And I think what, when you stop and you pause and, you know, actually I think this could be better, and we co-design, and we’re all part of that solution, I think people feel really genuinely listened to and heard and that they’re been part of a solution moving forward.

– [Adam] Well, Sarah, this has been very rich, so far, lots of tactical ideas and guidance in there. We need to take a short break for those of you who are watching this, have been shared this video from, from a colleague or found it somewhere on the internet, head to for the rest of this conversation, as well as many more. Sarah Martin, thanks so much for joining us to be part of PL Together.

– [Sarah] Thank you.

For more interviews with education leaders about school culture and other insights, check out all our PLtogether Lounge Talks