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Speaker: Boost school culture with technology

Anthony Muhammad is a leading consultant on school culture. (Submitted photo)

WILLMAR — The culture of a school can affect the education delivered there, and it’s up to the adults involved to make sure their school has a nurturing culture and not a toxic one.

Anthony Muhammad spoke Thursday at the Willmar Public Schools all-staff welcome at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Muhammad is a consultant in improving school culture who has worked in education for more than 20 years as a teacher and administrator.

The school district often invites a motivational speaker to the staff welcome, which also includes a welcome from the business community and United Way of West Central Minnesota.

Muhammad, author of “Transforming School Culture: How To Overcome Staff Division,” said that America’s public school system rests on two principles: the right of all children to attend school and the belief that all children can learn and succeed.

The nation has done a good job with its laws to ensure a free public education to every child, Muhammad said.

While some practical roadblocks may remain, “legally, we’re there,” he said.

The real work for the nation’s schools comes in the need for an “unwavering belief” that all children can succeed, he said.

Minnesota, in particular, needs to work on that issue, he said. The state’s schools rank in the top five in many national measurements but the state also has the largest achievement gaps in the nation.

Muhammad said a transformation is needed for the state to take the next step toward success for all children.

He talked about the changes coming in education in the next five years and urged the staff to engage with modern technology, an increasingly important component in education. He spoke of the usefulness of Twitter in building a community and communicating with students.

“If you’re still fighting the wave of technology, that ship sailed a long time ago,” he said.

He warned about sounding like a typewriter salesman who says computers are a passing fad.

One of the best systems he’s found to improve culture is the Professional Learning Community, he said.

Willmar has instituted PLCs in its school buildings, and teachers meet regularly to discuss best practices in their fields and to share ideas that have worked in their classrooms.

“It’s more than just a meeting,” Muhammad said. “PLC is a form of education and instructional delivery. … The key to improving learning is the improvement of the educator.”

Along with meetings and discussions, he said, PLCs need to encourage a change of mindset, he said. “Some schools are ready to embrace it; others are not.”

If it’s difficult for an individual to change, imagine how difficult it is to change an organization, he said.

School culture can be a roadblock to the effectiveness of PLCs, Muhammad said.

Muhammad called on his own work and that of other authors to describe two types of school culture.

He referred to school culture as the soil where the seeds of education are planted.

The best ideas, if planted in soil that is acidic and uncultivated, won’t grow well. But a healthy soil can cause those ideas to grow lush and healthy.

“I don’t care how research-based the strategy is if it’s planted in bad soil,” he said. “In a healthy culture, educators develop an unwavering belief that all students can be successful.”

A healthy culture is reflective and looks for ways to identify problems and address them, he said.

By contrast, in a toxic culture, people focus on problems and find “new ways to complain about the same thing over and over,” he said. That culture can lend itself to cliques, frustration and slander.

Muhammad called it “adult drama” and urged people to avoid it.

“For those who prefer to be part of adult drama, you’re hurting kids,” he said. “It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and it’s not ethical. … Have the will to stop.”

Muhammad credited his mother, a teacher with a master’s degree, with his success in school and beyond.

At first, it was his fear of her disapproval that drove him, until he came to realize the value of education.

He had friends who were gifted young men full of potential, but in their working class neighborhood in Flint, Mich., he said, they didn’t have the support he did at home. Of his four best friends, he said, two are dead, one is serving life in prison, and the other lives in his parents’ basement.

He went into education, he said, “because I wanted to do for all children what my mother did for me.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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