My User Manual

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Cultivating a positive staff culture is one of the most important responsibilities a Head of School holds. Staff culture, for better and for worse, will directly impact teachers’ job satisfaction and have consequences for their well-being. These feelings will inevitably transfer to their interactions and relationships with colleagues, students, their students’ parents, and beyond. I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about ways to ensure the staff culture at my school is the most positive and supportive that it can be. Here, I will present one of the most successful ways I’ve done this.

I was reading an article a few summers ago, likely sent by Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, about this very topic and the idea presented in the article struck me as fascinating and immediately I knew I wanted to try it. The idea was to write a user manual on oneself – a guide to help others understand us better and therefore work with us better. I knew that in order to be authentic, which is an essential practice to model when building a positive staff culture, I would have to write my own user manual before asking my staff to do it. It would require some soul searching and a lot of reflection, but since those are things I happen to love to do, I knew I would get a lot out of the process.

Using the article as a guide, I chose and adapted the prompts that I thought would be most useful in our school setting. As is often the case for me when I write something rather personal for work, I asked my husband and mother to read it and offer feedback. One of the most delightful unintended consequences of this process was the personal conversations this sparked with these two deeply important people in my life. When sharing this assignment with my staff, I was able to highlight this surprising benefit. As we approached one of my most favorite days of the year, the day my teachers return from summer break, I sent an email to describe the user manual I would be asking them to compose during the coming week of meetings and professional learning. I asked them to consider the six prompts I settled on when composing my own: my style, what I value, what causes me frustration, how best to communicate with me, how to help me, and what people misunderstand about me. In what turned out to be a scary and vulnerable act, I shared my user manual with my entire staff. In the email, I said:

“The reason I wrote this user manual is twofold. First, it provided me with a structure and process to communicate important information about myself to you. It was a way to clarify things for myself and to take them explicit. It was an exercise in leading out loud and in some ways, it is a vulnerable place to put myself. In the end, it is my hope and strong conviction that the content and process will contribute to a positive work environment for all of us. Second, it is an example of something I want you to create for yourselves and to share with your teams, with me, and others with whom you work closely. Again, it is my hope and strong conviction that the content and process will add to a positive work environment for all. It took me a few days to create mine, and I based it on someone else's example. It was an incredible process, one that required a lot of reflection. We will get this started on this over the course of our week together, but this kind of thing will evolve over the year.

My hope is that it will be very helpful to you in your work, especially in your collaborative work with others at school. My wish is that it will be instructional for you as a human and helpful to you in your life, in your relationships with others in your life, and most importantly for your relationship with yourself.”

What followed was the creation of a remarkable set of documents. I learned so much about my staff and responded to each of them with a set of reflections and in some cases additional questions relating to what they wrote. I helped them create protocols to review their manuals together as a team in safe and trusting ways. While many of them initially had a hard time composing their manuals, without exception, they all found it valuable and as a result changed, adapted, and enhanced the ways in which they collaborated, designed their classroom environments/schedules, and communicated with one another.

The following year, at the same time in August, I asked them to review their user manuals and offered the following task, “Reflect on what you have learned about yourself in the past year and revise your manual to reflect that learning.” They were asked to highlight these changes in the document, and once again, share it with their teams, with me, and others with whom they work closely. Of course, I met with any new staff to bring them up to speed and support them in writing their first user manual. Since the staff theme that year was “Teachers are superheroes” I added one more request. “Please add answers to the following two questions: What is your superpower? What is your Kryptonite*?

(* Kryptonite = Superman’s ultimate weakness, or anything that causes someone’s ultimate weakness. For our purposes, it doesn’t need to be ‘ultimate’ weakness and should be somehow relevant to your work environment.)”

The feedback I got from my staff about both iterations of this exercise was tremendous, and the manuals continue to be of great value. It is not uncommon to be sitting in a meeting and hear one person say to another "I remember from your user manual... and behave in a way that is respectful of whatever that person wrote. 

Many staff members echoed what I learned about the personal benefits after sharing it with loved ones. Among the reasons I believe this exercise was effective in shaping a positive staff culture is that it builds some of the most necessary ingredients – trust, authenticity, and proactive communication. I highly recommend you try it and I would be delighted to see how it goes. Email me and let me know!