How coaching is helping this big district overhaul workplace culture
Custodians and maintenance workers at Dallas ISD had built up a reputation for poor service over the years. In fact, the entire facilities department consistently ranked near the bottom on the district’s annual climate and culture surveys. “We weren’t friendly and we weren’t timely filling out work orders,” says Assitant Superintendent David Bates, who now leads the department.
But the facilities department now ranks near the top, thanks to a commitment to establishing a more positive culture in the 22,000-employee district. Three years ago, Bates volunteered his department to be the first to participate in the pilot of a new professional development initiative anchored by Dallas ISD’s “core four” principles: “focused, fast, flexible and friendly.” The work began with training and coaching department leaders in climate strategies that they then spread to employees at each school.
As a result of the culture shift, productivity has skyrocketed. In the past, it was taking facilities staff two months or more to respond to a work order. Now it generally takes less than 10 days, Bates says.
One thing that motivates employees to sustain a positive culture is the chance to earn digital badges for practicing the “core four” principles. Employees earn badges by bringing evidence—such as a laudatory email from a principal about a job well done—to monthly coaching sessions. The badges, which have become a source of pride and competitiveness, are often displayed on employees’ virtual backgrounds during Zoom meetings.
Rewarding staff for adopting desired behavior is key to changing culture—but the recognition must be based on data to be seen as authentic, says Shannon Buerk, the founder of engage2learn, the coaching platform that is powering the project. “At a time of huge employee shortages, recognition is more important than ever,” Buerk says. “Recognition based on evidence is a lot more meaningful because people realize it’s more than a popularity contest. It’s based on something tangible.”
Here are three keys to launching a project to shift school district workplace culture:
- Identify the behaviors that will become competencies
- Put a system in place to scale support for educators, so everyone has a coach or thought partner
- Setting up a recognition system based on growth
Source: Shannon Buerk, engage2learn
Facilities staff continue learning about climate and culture during biweekly meetings of their professional learning communities. The district has also created an online hub where employees can watch videos and read stories about the behaviors and mindsets that have improved the culture.
The change in culture has helped the facilities department improve its retention rate significantly. Since the training began, its annual vacancy rate shrank from around 27% to under 7%, Bates says. A friendlier, more focused climate has also boosted recruitment to the point where other district employees—some with little maintenance experience—want to join the department.
Back in 2019, as the culture initiative began, cross-functional teams from throughout the district worked together to define the core four so everyone had an understanding of what each of the principles meant, says Pamela Lear, Dallas ISD’s chief of staff and chief of racial equity. For example, the district would focus on transforming students’ lives and work fast to respond to the need of their colleagues. Being friendly would create memorable moments for students and staff, says Lear, who initiated the project.
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The district’s frontline office managers will be the next group to participate in the core four training, which will begin this summer. A stronger culture will hopefully play a role in helping stem the enrollment losses the district has experienced in recent years. The population has dropped from about 150,000 students to 143,000 over the last seven years as families have switched to charter schools and been forced to move away by rising property costs, Lear says. “People walk onto a campus and they don’t like the feel of it and make a different decision,” Lear says. “That’s really where this work started, when we asked, ‘Why are we losing students?'”