Staff Culture and the impact on student learning and achievement

Inspired by Stephen R Covey ‘The 8th Habit’: From Effectiveness to Greatness’

Academic Excellence – a by-product of Cultural Excellence

Most schools set themselves a goal of improving academic rigour and achieving academic excellence. This may be improving standardised test scores (be it NAPLAN or HSC results), or ranking, or even community perceptions of the school. 

Any school that sets their core goal as raising achievements on standardised tests, often loses sight of what is important. It can actually backfire and be quite detrimental to school culture. Quality schools realise that high academic standards and outcomes are simply a by-product of a quality, nurturing, and engaging learning environment. The quality of the learning environment is always predicated upon the school culture and the calibre of the relationships between educators and support staff, and with their students and families.

Children who feel connected to their peers and to the adults within the school environment tend to feel a greater sense of self-worth, self-confidence and tend to strive for personal excellence. When they feel like they belong, they feel more accountable. They don’t want to let their educators, peers, or themselves down. They want to live up to the high expectations set for them, and that they in turn, set for themselves. It’s normal and healthy for children to push boundaries and limits, especially tweens and teens prior to the HSC years. However, a huge protective factor is the cocoon of a caring school environment, and a sense of belonging. It helps keep children on the path of learning, growing, and developing in healthy ways. 

We have created a people first culture within Moriah, with a significant emphasis on retaining, attracting, and growing our people. When people feel valued, they thrive and tend to value others. Together we create a culture of respect, empowerment, and high morale.  Stephen R. Covey in his book ‘The 8th Habit’, speaks of members of an organisation finding their voice and inspiring others to do so. 

Using our strengths and finding of our ‘voice’

My observations across over 90 high performing schools that I have studied, is that people go into education because they are driven by altruistic motives. They want to make a difference. They want to find and create greatness and shape the future. The knowledge worker era, in which we currently find ourselves, is all about people and their potential. There is an exponential increase in productivity when people are able to utilise their knowledge and their strengths to make an impact and a difference. That is what Covey calls finding your ‘voice’. Educators, with their altruistic, purpose orientation, are adept at finding their ‘voice’ and inspiring others to find theirs.

At Moriah, we encourage each individual staff member in our organisation not just to fulfil their duties, roles, or position description because of some top-down instruction, but rather for them to lead, to find their voice, and to inspire others to find their own voice and purpose. 

When people feel empowered to use their strengths, their birth-gifts, they in turn, encourage others to use theirs. The magnificent eco-system we are developing at Moriah is one in which our staff members feel empowered, as they use their strengths, passions, and purpose, and are empowered to find their voice, in turn helping our students find and develop theirs.

Developing our intelligence

Covey talks of four kinds of intelligence that we need to develop to discover our real strengths and to cultivate success. In fact, to succeed, we need a healthy mixture of all four of them in our personal lives, in our family relationships, as well as an organisation and school community. 

The first kind of intelligence is physical intelligence. That is the body functioning in a healthy manner, well-regulated, with or without conscious input. Looking after our physical health and wellbeing is vital for success. A deficiency in physical intelligence fundamentally compromises success. Jewish thought places health, and health maintenance, front and central in our value system. A healthy body is a pre-requisite to a healthy mind and soul.

The second is mental intelligence. The ability to think, to problem solve, to critically analyse all the stimulus and interactions in life, whether it is things, people, or situations, and then to make informed choices and decisions. Often Jewish culture encourages over-analysis and evaluation, but we need to leverage that critical thought to our advantage.

The third is emotional intelligence. The ability to empathise, communicate effectively, and to relate to others, in an effective and friendly manner and build meaningful relationships. A cornerstone of Judaism is V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha – ‘Love and feel empathy towards others as you would towards yourself.’

The fourth is spiritual intelligence. Often neglected, spiritual intelligence is the imperative that drives us to seek purpose and meaning. Our spiritual intelligence and belief systems, scaffold and shape how we approach our other intelligences. Moriah at its very essence cultivates spiritual intelligence.

Obviously the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual intelligences don’t function in silos. They are interdependent with each other. That is the mosaic of a Moriah education.

Be a leader

Each person within their own world, as an individual, member of their family, and definitely as part of our school community, can and should lead. 

We need to develop four elements to lead effectively:

The first is that we need to have our own personal, family, and professional vision and strategy. Our vision helps us develop a clear direction in our own lives and creates a collaborative direction in our workplace. 

The second is that we need to set an example of how to execute our ideas and strategies in a disciplined fashion to achieve our vision. Strategy commences with us and then the disciplined example we set inspires others around us. 

The third is to be passionate. To create and share that vision with passion and enthusiasm and create a positive and collaborative culture. 

The fourth is to manage and maintain structure and order within all the different elements of our personal and professional lives and within our organisation. 

Great leaders need to employ all four principles of visionexecutionpassion, and structure in order to be able to succeed. If one is missing or neglected, it impacts us as individuals and it impacts the organisation or family as a whole. 

Leading means being proactive

When we see bad habits develop, or poor interactions or situations emerge, often the first approach we may adopt is to wait for it to change and improve, ‘Let’s give it space and time, and hopefully things will move on and improve’. ‘Proactivity’, the freedom to choose, converts the ‘wait and see’ approach into a ‘Let’s take action, improve, fix, and make an impact’ approach. This is a critical part of our school culture. Realising that we are never a victim, even if there are things beyond our control, we do have a choice of how to react, and we have a choice to take the reins and make a change. 

Building trust – vital for success

Critical to success is ‘synergy’. As Covey describes it, interdependent, collaborative relationships, that exponentially increase our success and output. A key to synergistic success, is mutual trust, both on a personal and professional level. 

There are four behaviours that enhance trust and make deposits into our trust bank accounts. The opposite of these four behaviours make withdrawals, and damage trusting relationships. 

The first element is to keep our promises, to follow through and always deliver. 

The second is to be kind and friendly all the time, even when we are not in the mood to do so. 

A simple guide to be kind all the time is to say four simple phrases, they make a huge difference in our relationships – “please”, “thank you”, “how can I help?”, and in our personal relationships, “I love you”. 

The third trust-building behaviour is being careful with our words. Nomenclature makes a difference and being very careful about how we talk about others, especially others who are not present. When we are careful with our words, and talk positively and encouragingly in the presence of others, even about others who may not be there, we build trust and confidence. When people know that we have their backs, that we are going to talk positively about them, even when they are not there, they feel safe and trust us. 

The fourth trust building behaviour is to make a to make a genuine apology when you mess up, and make a mistake, and align your actions with your words. 

Often to build trust, all it takes is to give trust. Trust is best viewed as a verb not a noun, and when you act with trust towards another, as King Solomon says (Mishlei/Proverbs 27:19), ‘Ka’mayim Ha’panim el panim’ – we reflect trust back like ‘water reflects back a facial expression’. When you show somebody that you trust them, that you have faith in them, and you value them, they will rise to the occasion and reflect similar sentiments back to you. 

The ‘talking stick’, empathic listening

Another key to raising morale and success within a school or any organsation is dealing with conflict. The first step in dealing with conflict is seeking to understand. Truly listen. We think because we spend at least 30, 40, 50 percent or hopefully more of our human interactions listening, that we are good at it, but so many people are deficient in their listening skills. Real empathetic listening is a rare and coveted skill, but it can be developed. 

Covey describes an interaction he had whilst conducting a workshop with North American indigenous Indian tribal leaders. They gave him a gift, a ‘talking stick’. It was a wooden pole almost the height of human. When someone is holding the pole, it is their turn to talk. Everyone else must listen. Nobody is allowed to talk, and preferably not even think about anything other than seeking to understand the person holding the stick and talking. They are only allowed to ask clarifying questions or paraphrase back the speaker’s ideas as they seek to understand. The rule is that the person with the talking stick should only pass it on, and in fact must pass it on, to the next person, when they feel thoroughly understood. Then the next person has the right to go through the same experience of speaking whilst everyone else seeks to understand them before they pass the stick on. What a powerful and simple listening experience and exercise. 

When we see what the other person sees, when we understand why they perceive things the way they do, and look at things from their frame of reference, it is extraordinary to see how what was previously perceived as two different or opposite sides of the spectrum of a discussion or disagreement, can actually lead to a third enriching win-win outcome. Listen empathically and only then present your point of view, then watch how a third perspective and better solution emerges. 

Core values drive our school

Within an organisation, there must be a set of core values for everyone to fall back on. By joining Moriah, all of our staff members, our students, and their families, align themselves with our core values and commit to behaviours in line with those values. A deep core value at Moriah is ’Belonging’. A sense of belonging, a sense of connection, a sense of care. A sense of “I make a difference”. At Moriah, we are part of a community, part of a golden chain of Jewish history, part of a global Jewish nation, deeply connected to our Jewish heritage and to the land of Israel. We help our children appreciate how they belong to their family, friendship group, to the Jewish community in Sydney, or to a synagogue, a youth group, or co-curricular team or activity. A sense of belonging for all people, whether they are young or old, is a deep guiding core value here at Moriah. 

Sometimes we may lose sight of, and not behave in accordance with our core values. In fact, no one, no school, organisation, or individual, stays on track, and is fully aligned with their core values all the time. What really matters is what we do next when we realise we aren’t being true to those values.

As Viktor Frankl observes, an aeroplane has a very clearly mapped flight path, but for the majority of the flying time the aeroplane slightly deviates from that flight path. Nevertheless, the pilot and co-pilot continuously consult with their instruments, and adjust the plane back onto that flight path and it still gets to its destination, close to its original planned time of arrival.

In order to realign ourselves as individuals and as a school community, we need to be able to have those trusting and empathetic feedback conversations. If we have done something that is not aligned with our core values, we can honestly share our feedback with each other, realign ourselves and continuously seek to improve. 

Thinking and empowered staff = thriving and empowered children

At Moriah, by giving every single one of our staff members the freedoms and responsibilities, together with shared control and the ability to innovate, to continuously improve and to enrich the lives of all the children in our care, each of our staff members is able to find their ‘voice’. They feel trusted, empowered, and motivated. In turn they continue to inspire each other and inspire each and every single child in our care to find their own ‘voice’. 

In summary, to thrive, we as a College and every community member therein, staff, students, parents, need to find our voice, seek to inspire others to find theirs, and to lead. Each of us is well placed to lead, to instil trust, to communicate effectively, to relinquish some control, and seek to benefit the school organisation and community as a whole.

Wishing each and every single child and staff member in our school an enriching and successful year.


Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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