Catholic School Matters

January 12, 2020

Shaping Catholic Culture

Over Christmas break, I finally read Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson’s Shaping School Culture. I say “finally” because I’ve seen references to the work for years and it’s probably been on my book queue longer than any other book. The first edition came out 20 years ago and it’s easy to see how its influence on the latest generation of school culture books, notably Tim Cook’s Architects of Catholic Culture.

Perhaps the greatest insight was the “bifocal principal” which they define as someone who “thinks structurally and symbolically.” I find their emphasis on structure and symbol much more engaging than what is traditionally defined as management/leadership. How we create meaning for our school communities is symbolic leadership and encompasses the history, rituals, ceremonies, heroes, and stories we tell. Inspired by this insight, I am challenging the Montana Catholic school leaders to come up with a story every month for our meetings. This month, they were challenged to come up with a two minute story about an inspirational teacher.

As Deal and Peterson say, “In this book we examine the varied ways symbolic leaders shape culture to create a cohesive, meaningful, nurturing, social milieu for teachers to teach and students to learn” (17). How many times have you heard Catholic school teachers say, “I teach here because I am happier even though I make less money?” This is perhaps where we could double down and look for improvement—by strengthening and articulating our symbolic leadership.

The bifocal principal must remain focused on both on day-to-day structural tasks as well as the symbolic leadership tasks. In addition, Deal and Peterson challenge school leaders to enter into paradox. “Very few issues in education are either-or, and principals who deal with paradox will find their jobs much less stressful and more rewarding.” (xiii).

The other insight which really stood out was their take on the traditional complaint about schools: “if only they run like businesses.” How many times have you heard this? Deal and Peterson turn this on its head and encourage schools to act more like successful mission-driven businesses, infusing their work with meaning, passion, and purpose.

Take a look at this article about the Top 20 business transformations of the last decade and you’ll see plenty of examples of symbolic leadership. Or read this article from The Atlantic about the breakaway Catholic sect who have created a withdrawal experiment in Kansas. They have used symbolic leadership to shape the meaning of their world. Another great culture article I saw lately was about creating strong rules to build a strong culture.

Perhaps the best example of a culture article is Kathleen Porter-Magee’s essay “Catholic on the Inside” from the Manhattan Institute. Porter-Magee focuses on the values which shape Catholic schools—objective truth, every person created in God’s image, the habits of virtue, and the foundation in something larger than individual achievement. It’s an amazing essay and deserves your attention.

Shaping School Culture is full of examples of school leaders who have defined, built, and strengthened their school cultures.

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Dr. Tim Uhl

Big picture

Case Studies Ripped from the Headlines

In this section, I present a Catholic school controversy in the headlines. I don't mean to single out one school or criticize its leaders. I want to present the story and offer you a few questions to consider in case this controversy lands on your desk this year. I encourage you to look at the particulars of the situation to understand the intricacies of the controversy.

Last fall, students at a Catholic school were implicated in threats made to their Catholic high school. Here is another article. The threats were aired on SnapChat and illustrate the challenge of monitoring and intervening in off-campus behavior. Would you have responded any differently? Do you have policies and procedures to meet this challenge?

American Catholic School News

Catholic Schools Opening & Closing

Leadership Links

Teaching & Learning


What I'm Up To

This week on the Catholic School Matters podcast I welcome three guests to the podcast. I first welcome two Catholic school leaders from the border who discuss changes to the climate of their schools and how the new political reality has changed the life of their schools. Dr. Guadalupe Perez, the superintendent of the Diocese of Laredo, and Sylvia Benning, the principal of St. Charles Catholic School in San Diego, discuss Catholic schools on the border. Then the dynamic Stephanie Saroki de Garcia (pictured at right) returns to the podcast to discuss the initiatives of Seton Education Partners--including their first Catholic turnaround school!

I've submitted the final corrections for my first book, Orchestrating Conflict: Case Studies in Catholic School Leadership due out in March.

Here is the link to the podcast. Here are videos showing you how to download and subscribe to a podcast on Apple podcasts and how to download and subscribe a podcast on Android.

  • Monday: Office (Helena)
  • Tuesday-Tuesday: Vacation! (I'm taking the family to Ireland to celebrate my birthday)

Miles travelled in 2019-20: 19,390 road miles; 26,618 air miles

Last 5 Books

    1. Sermon on the Mount (1991) by Richard Rohr
    2. Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety (2019) by Henri J.M. Nouwen & Richard Rohr
    3. Canyon Dreams (2019) by Michael Powell
    4. Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (2015) by Sam Quinones
    5. Shaping School Culture, 3rd edition (2016) by Terrence E. Deal & Kent D. Peterson

            Click this link for a full list of my professional reading

            For Montana Administrators & Teachers

            • Here is a link from the Jan 7th Virtual Admin meetings.
            • For the Feb 4th Virtual Admin meeting, school leaders are challenged to come up with a 1-minute story about a student who turned around
            • Catholic Schools Week is right around the corner!

            Past Issues of Catholic School Matters

            Jan 5, 2020 "Timelessness"

            Nov 24, 2019 "Best of the Fall"

            Nov 17, 2019 "Synodality"

            Nov 3, 2019 "Finance Best Practices"

            Oct 27, 2019 "Blaine Amendments"

            Oct 20, 2019 "Community & Belongingness"

            Oct 13, 2019 Sr. Angie's Lawlapalooze

            Oct 6, 2019 "River of Fire"

            Sep 29, 2019 "Male and Female He Created Them"

            Sep 22, 2019 "Surveying Catholic Culture"

            Sep 15, 2019 "New Catholic Schools"

            Sep 8, 2019 "The Mustard Seed Project"