Walking the Talk: How Leaders Grow a Personalized School Culture

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


Let’s engage in a storytelling challenge. What were some of your most powerful learning moments as an educator so far?

  • What did you see in these stories? What are the patterns?
  • What were the feelings expressed as you shared your stories?
  • What can we learn from this storytelling challenge that might help us envision this next school year?

The stories you tell help to build the culture you create and it all begins with personalizing relationships in the service of learning. Joshua Rothman, in an article in the New Yorker, explores the meaning of culture. He describes how many ways we use the term in today’s environment and finally poses this “wish” as an operational definition of culture we might live by.

The wish is that a group of people might discover, together, a good way of life; that their good way of life might express itself in their habits, institutions, and activities; and that those, in turn, might help individuals flourish in their own ways.

As we reflected on this concept, it resonated with our wish for creating a personalized culture in our educational communities. It suggests that if we want our students to graduate as accomplished, thoughtful citizens ready for the next chapter of their lives, then we must make certain we are expressing the habits, activities, and ways our schools operate as models for their development. In other words, it is not just about the stories you tell but about the culture you create.

So what behaviors will signal to your school community your intention to establish and grow a personalized culture? To start, we recommend the Habits of Mind as the basis for building a thinking culture. For example when engaging in storytelling, focusing on listening with understanding and empathy creates an environment where people are paying close attention to what the other is saying.

Here are some ideas:

  • As school leaders, tell your story. What are your hopes and aspirations for this new year? It is important for you as a leader in the school to be active players, not watching from the sidelines. Sharing your stories is a way to model the behaviors you are looking for among the rest of the educators.
  • Provide the opportunity for teachers to uncover their aspirations for the new school year. Perhaps they can partner with another person and tell the story of what they imagine their students will be like by the end of the year. Or, perhaps they could describe what they would like their students to say about their year after they have been in their classroom. What patterns and themes do you see as you hear the stories? How do those patterns and themes begin to describe the ways you would like a visitor to see the school?
  • Be a photojournalist in your school. What are the snapshots/artifacts that dominate the culture of the school right now? How does that line up to the vision of the school you want to create?
  • Engage the school community in creating a vision of what you would like people to say about your school. What are the habits, activities, institutional ways that your school tells its own story?
  • Consider what you have learned from the stories that you have heard and how it might impact setting professional goals for this school year. How will we articulate goals that reflect the stories told about powerful learning? How might we identify checkpoints to examine growth?

A tone of playful storytelling can set the stage for imagining a new beginning. Remember that in May or June we celebrate commencement with students. As a professional school community, the celebration of commencement starts with the opening days of school.

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