“Dear (name of school) Family,”
Do you ever send or receive school communications using that language? What is your immediate reaction? Does it make you feel connected and cared for, or cynical and uncomfortable?
Several years ago, I had a conversation that has stuck with me. I had mentioned that as a principal I was trying to cultivate a school culture where everyone cares about each other, like a family. My head of school turned to me and said, “We are not a family. We are a group of professionals with a shared mission.” At the time, I had a hard time understanding why anyone would not want to build a close-knit culture. After all, do we want the students, teachers and parents in our building to think of school as somewhere they have to be or somewhere they want to be?
Fast forward to the challenging last few years of the Covid pandemic, when the lines between work and family were sometimes blurry. Teaching from home over zoom. WhatsApp chats and faculty meetings at all hours. The burnout and stress that educators often feel on a good day was multiplied tenfold. And now, as we begin, please God, to emerge from the pandemic and return to “normalcy,” the challenges of teacher retention and of mental health, which were really there all along, are even more acute.
Which brings me back to this question that I have been thinking about for years: What are the pros and cons of describing school staff as a family? Is this language helpful, or does it cause challenges? How should schools balance professionalism with caring? Are there boundaries that should or should not be crossed?
I posted this question on social media and received many strong opinions. One person wrote, “It screams toxic work environment that expects too much and delivers too little.” Others preferred terms like “staff,” “team” or “community,” rather than “family,” which may not even have positive associations for all people.
There is research on this topic. Several models of organizational culture have been described, among them “relational,” “tribe” or “clan culture” models. Proponents of those models point to research about the importance of belonging and of feeling connected, appreciated and accepted. Others have taken a very different approach. A 2021 Harvard Business Review article described “The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a Family.
So let’s dig a little deeper. What are the potential downsides of “family culture”? The main issues that are often raised are boundaries, accountability and self-advocacy.
Boundaries. Talking about staff as a family runs the risk of blurring important boundaries and upsetting work-life balance. If a teacher is not just an employee or colleague but a family member, then maybe it’s not such a big deal for me to ask them to go above and beyond their job description or hours. Wouldn’t you do that for a family member? And if we are family, does that mean we have to socialize on Shabbat and be friends outside of work? Or that our kids must have play dates?
Accountability. If we are a family, it may be harder for a supervisor to give honest feedback, to hold staff accountable, and in some cases, to let staff go. You would never “fire” your brother or sister from the family, even if their conduct left something to be desired. Taking a more personal rather than professional approach runs the risk of tolerating low standards.
Self-Advocacy. If staff are expected to feel like family, then it might be harder for them to complain, to ask for a promotion or a raise, or even to decide to pursue other professional opportunities elsewhere. Because families look out for each other. Families don’t put one person over the group. Instead, staff may feel they have to tolerate unreasonable expectations or sacrifice their own needs for the team.
Given all those challenges, what is the other perspective? What might be some of the benefits of using the language of “family”? Here the main approach seems to center on caring and community.
Caring. The flip side of too much acceptance is the benefit of knowing that your supervisor truly cares for you as a person, not just as an employee. They know that you are human, that you are not perfect, that you have bad days, and that you make mistakes. And they still believe in you, support you and encourage you.
This builds safety and trust. You’re not just another name on a list. You matter individually. Your voice is valued. Your growth is important. Even more than that, your relationship is not transactional. You matter to them not only as an employee, but as a person. They care as much about your 5-9 as they do about your 9-5. As one person responded to my post on social media,
I want them to know that I am invested in them beyond just the three hours a week they work for me, i.e., for mentoring, or writing graduate school references. I can see the downsides, but what I want to convey is that a “job” is a place you only go because they pay you (driving an Uber, Target cashier) but a vocation/calling/team is a job you do because the work itself and the people you do it with are important to you in addition to the paycheck.
Community. As a family, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And we look out for each other. I am willing to share materials with you or cover for you because I know you would do the same thing for me. We don’t compete with each other but celebrate each other. We work to integrate and welcome new colleagues and develop rituals to sustain camaraderie and morale. We are here not because we need a job, but because we have a shared purpose based on shared values. Perhaps most importantly, as a family our deepest held value is maintaining community even when we disagree.
As with most issues, there is no one approach to school culture that fits all. And it may depend on the environment of an individual school. Some schools may build a more “professional” culture, whereas others might lean in more to a “relational” one. To me, the approach and the language are not what matter the most; it’s the conversations around those choices. School leaders can say a lot of things, but the real culture will emerge over time by what they do and how they make people feel.
As we have seen, family and professionalism are two ends of a spectrum; there are potential benefits and challenges to either side. The art and heart of this really comes down to naming the issues, being intentional about the kind of culture we want to create and the kind we want to avoid, and making the conversation a regular part of the dialogue between all levels of staff.
Having said all that, there are many specific things school leaders can do to build the positive elements of trust, support, caring and community we have described, even if they don’t frame it as a “family.” What might it look like to build a school culture that authentically and sincerely values its staff and seeks to build collaboration, connection and community? Here are some suggestions.
- Schedule time in your calendar to proactively check in on your colleagues and teachers to see how they are doing and what’s on their mind. This includes part-time and substitute teachers. No staff member should come to school and leave feeling that no one was happy to see them.
- Show interest in people’s family and personal lives while honoring their choice to share as much or as little as they want.
- Express sincere gratitude for your colleagues, not only for the work they do and the impact they have, but for being the person that they are.
- Remind teachers that it is OK to make mistakes, to try new things that may not work out and to ask for help. Model this for them by asking them for help and demonstrate your own growth mindset by taking risks as well.
- Share with teachers the decisions you are thinking about, and ask for their perspectives.
- Develop protocols and norms for healthy debate and disagreement.
- Create common spaces and schedules where teachers can spend time together.
- Make sure that every staff member knows every other staff member’s name and role in the school.
- Invest in your teachers by helping them create growth plans and recognizing their progress. Develop leadership capacities, and offer opportunities to take on greater responsibility.
- Encourage work-life balance by not calling, texting or emailing about school matters at night or on weekends. And by supporting them when they need to take a mental health day to recharge.
- Develop rituals and traditions to celebrate and recognize staff when they depart.
These are just a few examples; there are many more amazing things happening in each of our schools. The challenge (like many things) is not a lack of desire but time. We are often juggling so many responsibilities and putting out so many fires that it can be hard to find the time or headspace to make this a priority. But if you think about organizations with healthy supportive cultures, you will realize that this is not icing on the cake; it is the cake. We are in the business of nurturing people, and that includes not only students, but parents and colleagues as well.
So, after thinking this all through a bit, maybe my head of school was right. Maybe we’re not exactly a family. But maybe I was also right. We’re more than just colleagues—we’re a kehillah, a community. We are people who have a passion for helping children learn and grow, and for building a better tomorrow. Education is not a job for us, but a calling. We care and, because we care, we are connected to each other. We have our own families and lives outside of school, but we also have a community at school where we belong and are cared for as well.