The Air We Breathe

  • Posted on: 17 November 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

Culture is like the air that we breathe in our organization. It's the way be behave with each other based on beliefs, experiences and norms but more importantly, on what's accepted by the people around us. Our culture lives in our language, our stories and our rituals. Our collective humanness is on daily display. For better or worse.

I once worked in an organization where the culture was tight, rigid with long standing beliefs and behaviors that smothered any attempt to reflect and reconsider practices and update models. New members of the organization were quickly indoctrinated with the old guard's thinking and they could either join them or hide out. There was little joy evident in the places where people gathered for meals. The greeting at the entrance to the building was tight and controlled; the halls were quiet and bare. Rules reigned and creativity hid out with the newcomers. Yet, it was a clean and orderly place. Safety was the priority and no one got hurt. So to speak.

But then the newcomers got restless. They had some ideas about change…about how to work and communicate and collaborate. They had ideas about gathering people together to solve problems and test new thinking and plan celebrations once the problems were no longer problems but were seen rather as a springboard for new models of work. It was at times scary for the newcomers. Their ideas weren't widely welcomed and they often had to regroup and rethink strategies. They had to convince the leaders and the influencers in the building that their ideas had merit and then they had to do the legwork to give new practices a try. It got messy. People pushed back, ironically those resisting became creative in trying out new ways to stop the change. Doors were closed; backs were turned. The air was hard to breath.

Then little by little the new practices worked better than the old models. People talked about what was going well and they fixed what wasn't working. They kept refining and rethinking and thanking each other for their time, ideas and good conversations. The lunch table talk became brighter, the front office lightened up. The focus on the collective effort to design something together forced a shift in energy. By changing practices and processes and regularly gathering people together to think and share ideas, and by showing appreciation of each other's talents the culture moved. Little by little, person-by-person, breath-by-breath the air began to change.

It wasn't easy and it wasn't neat. Some people decided to leave but most stayed and those that stayed opened their doors and sat at the table and talked to their colleagues about their practice. They changed their behavior, individually at first, but then collectively. It was a fascinating and rich experience and one that has played a critical role in my work with teams.

I met Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, when I was in college while she was speaking to a group of students. She had spent her life studying human behavior and understood and valued the interconnectedness of all aspects of our lives. How interdependent we all are. She saw that our diversity is a resource, not a handicap. She believed that cultural patterns were learned and can be changed. She believed that our interconnectedness gives us the opportunity to learn from and teach each other. Not always easy. But true. Mead's most well known quote is this: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." And that small group is now us.


Maryclare Heffernan, M.Ed. is an education consultant working with school and district teams to support improved student learning through a systems approach. Her Bedford, NH based consultation focuses on facilitating an understanding of the  the current reality, envisioning a desired state and designing a model to meet those new ideals. Her philosophy is rooted in the belief that a collective commitment to the professional practice of teaching and learning is essential in reaching all students.  She is the author of online essays related to shifts in thinking, developing professional learning communities and the need for persistent, supported, energized and meaningful progression within our schools.