5 Culture Lessons from Auckland Grammar School

5 Culture Lessons from Auckland Grammar

Often you sense it from your first experience.

As I tried, with little clarity, to guide my taxi driver Jaspreet to my meeting location at Auckland Grammar we hit the ‘asking’ point. You know, the moment that pride is relegated to second on the podium and humility once again ascends to the gold medal position. One of the groundsmen, a young man perhaps 22 or 23 politely dulled his leaf blower, took time out of his working day and kindly pointed us in the right direction.

Upon entering the building I was welcomed warmly with a smile and genuine interest of why I was there. The conversation very quickly morphed into a brief history of the school and why many people considered it ‘the best place they’ve ever worked.’

I’d been here 10 minutes and I already had gained a deep insight into the culture of this place.

One of the quotes we like to use in our work on culture and purpose centres around a janitor at The NASA Space Centre being asked by President Robert F. Kenned, ‘What are you doing today?’. ‘Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon’ comes his reply.

This connection to a clear purpose, something bigger than just the tasks we simply carry out in our day’s work, is what enables teams, organsiations or in this case schools to thrive. To truly set, live and breathe that often intangible and sometimes mythic beast that is culture.

Throughout my very short time at Auckland Grammar recently I was fortunate enough to gain a deep insight into how the school develops ‘The Grammar Way: Becoming a Good Man’. This is not just an approach that enables every young man that enters the school gates to truly understand themselves and their place in the world, but also sets the standard for culture across the wider school community.

Associate Headmaster Junior School, Mr. Ben Skeen, was my culture prophet and guide as he not only stepped me through the process of setting up The Grammar Way but immersed me in what a day might look like within the historic halls of Auckland Grammar.

Here’s five things I’m grateful for learning, or re-learning, during my short time with Ben.

Culture Lesson One

Understand the philosophy that drives performance

The Grammar Way is steeped in research and historical context. The framework they have devised is simple and powerful yet has taken three years to get to its current iteration, not to mention the decades upon which it is built. With character learning central to the framework it also embraces the school context and values, what the context means in the words of the boys and outcomes which are linked with traditional Maori values and philosophies.

This simplicity, yet total connectedness, was a powerful learning on how we can make the very complex seem simple enough, as Einstein would say, ‘to explain to a six year old’. What was evident was the importance of knowing your content, understanding why it exists and being very purposeful in how you intend to deliver on its intention.

Whether you’re in business and have a competency framework to guide staff learning and performance, a teacher putting their own spin on a mandated curriculum or a sports coach guiding the experience of the local under 10’s it’s critical to deeply understand what you’re teaching, why you’re teaching it and what success looks like.

This year Leaders of Evolution launched our own 4 C’s Learning Framework, which in some way is our own approach to ‘The Grammar Way’. Ironically this framework took around three years to develop too, through stress testing our learning programs and ongoing in the field research. Our 4 C’s of Competence, Confidence, Character and Connectedness allow us and the schools we work with to identify success and support students to achieve this.

What does the success framework  look like in your environment and how effectively do you think your leadership team deliver on this?

Culture Lesson Two

Play your role

In a school of 2500 students and 170 staff it could be easy for the leadership and character message to be somewhat lost or diluted. The way that staff are encouraged to embed The Grammar Way throughout their curriculum is impressive but also connects this message as being as important as the learning content itself.

From discussing integrity and ethics through the prism of stem cell innovation in science to the role resilience plays when students are confronted with their standing on an academic ladder (every student completes an exam when they enter Auckland Grammar and are ranked from 1 – 500 based on their results), teachers are expected to bring the Grammar Way to life through their everyday approach to education.

This interconnected approach to learning appropriate curriculum and behavioural traits is not as simple as sparking up a discussion when you feel like it. Having skilled educators who can confidently and seamlessly blend the two is critical to The Grammar Way being entrenched in the minds of students and staff. This means that every staff member must play their role in committing to understanding the philosophy and expertly linking to their identified curriculum.

How expertly do the individuals within your team play their role?

Culture Lesson Three

Artefacts mean something, if you acknowledge them

Schools, businesses and sports clubs alike often go to some length to expertly design and build artefacts that show ‘who we are’.

Sometimes, this even works.

Artefacts can be powerful and are so much more than just the values plastered across the foyer or organisation letterhead. History counts for something, if you know how to embrace it.

Within the main assembly area at Auckland Grammar stand rows and rows of seats, all positioned just so every morning for the daily assembly. To the naked eye these are bench seats like you might see in any other school hall that has its roots back to the mid 19thcentury. But did you know the ones with round legs date back to the early 1900’s? Or the straight legs to the 50’s?There’s even a few replacements that landed in 2016, no doubt to one day wear out just like those which came before it.

On the honour boards are the names of students who demonstrated leadership, character and academic excellence. Those once young men sat on these seats too, just like the current students do now. Regularly the stories of those who have been honoured for their efforts are shared at morning assembly, allowing students to connect with not only history but to identify that they too can follow in any of the various footsteps already planted by former Grammar Men.

Artefacts, stories, history. How well does your organisation acknowledge and share these to promote a sense of what comes before makes us who we are now?

Culture Lesson Four

1%’ers count

At the most recent Men’s Soccer World Cup the Japanese team, after being bundled out in the Quarter Finals, performed a clean-up job of their change rooms that Mr. Sheen himself would have been proud of. To boot, they left a thank you note written in Russian. Rightly, this display of gratitude, humility and respect was lauded the world over, it gave us pause for reflection about how we treat the environments we engage in on a daily basis.

Famously, the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team were probably the fore runner of this approach to paying respect to your environment with their ‘sweep the sheds’ philosophy. This is the ideal that we shall leave the rooms as we found them and we all contribute to this process.

As we toured the grounds this same philosophy was evident as Ben would stoop low from his tall frame to pick up a piece of tin foil here, a stow away piece of rubbish there, all in order to ‘sweep the sheds’.

In his viral speech (watched over 5 million times on You Tube) and subsequent book ‘Make Your Bed’, Navy Admiral William H. McRaven uses the simple task of making your bed everyday as the precursor to achieving much larger goals – ‘Start every day with a task complete’ he says.

As we toured the grounds Ben would stop and genuinely engage with every staff member he came across. Not just a fleeting recognition but a genuine interest in the person, what they were doing and why they were doing it. Subtly, this is the role modelling of the everyday behaviours expected of all Grammar people, be they staff (think our maintenance man or my first interaction within the walls of the school) or students and a nod to ‘making your bed’.

These are the leadership 1%’ers, the things we do when no-one is looking and highlights the critical link between integrity, respect and how our environment speaks volumes of our culture.

The 1%’ers can have a much bigger impact than the numerical figure bestowed upon them. How effective are you at the 1%’ers?

Culture Lesson Five

Tradition matters, but so does voice

Auckland Grammar is a traditional educational institution. The school rules are strict, the classrooms set in rows, boys are addressed by their last name and teachers are Sir or Miss. To many this approach would be confronting, especially when we consider the current climate of education and a desire to modernise curriculum, embrace technology, learning spaces and approaches. Indeed, it challenged my views of what educational environments ‘should’ look like.

But tradition matters and when Ben explained to me the philosophy behind these practices it began to make more sense. School rules are strict because, well so is life, and if the boys learn courtesy and respect for themselves and others it stands them in good stead to not only be self-aware but be effective leaders and teachers within their future careers and societal roles.

Students complete compulsory subjects for their first few years because there are times in life when we don’t get choices, yet still need to persevere and find ways to be successful. There will be things at school, as in life, that they don’t like or agree with but this is part of building character and resilience within the framework of a normal school day. Eager parents and students are explained exactly this philosophy on school open days.

In an article just after the 2016 Olympics we discussed the concept of celebrating failure and discussing process as well as outcome and this same approach seemed to ring true in the manner in which staff embrace real life learning situations with students. What was clear is that students are not simply thrown to the wolves to fend for themselves. They are coached, they are encouraged to come to their own realisations and decisions through their own experience, not unlike Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. As mentioned earlier, teachers are skilled in not only teaching the curriculum but also observing interactions and using these experiences to connect to character development and embedding The Grammar Way.

The Grammar Way framework has a section which explains the key concepts ‘In the words of the boys’, an important recognition of student voice and engagement within the design of the culture and behavioural framework.

FREE  School Culture & Performance Audit – Download HERE

This Quick Audit tool should only take a few minutes to work through and it will provide immediate feedback on important areas that can drive improved performance at your school. The key areas of reflection are based off the Leaders of Evolution article – 5 Culture Lessons from Auckland Grammar.

student leadership, athlete development, Learning Management System

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Leaders of Evolution are passionate about education. We are the experts in the development of purposeful and empowering e-learning courses that deliver measurable results for students, athletes, teachers and the wider community.

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Damian Hecker

Keeping an eye on all sports, especially the mighty Hawthorn Football Club, staying fit in the great outdoors and sneaking in some travel wherever possible occupy Damian's time away from designing e-learning curriculum for both Leaders of Evolution and our valued E-learning Hub Partners.

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