What we say and what we do - changing the way things 'just are' by Neil Preston

I’ve been lucky that I’ve always been a DOS in already mostly functional and happy workplaces and staff rooms, thanks to the excellent work that has gone before me and all I have been left with is the task of keeping it going and making it better. The core values that IH embraces as its identity are at the core of this – it’s nice to see the “IH Onion” that so clearly puts these down as they have always been the cornerstone. For me it’s always been about how to foster ways for these to come out. Happy teachers make happy students.

In mid-2010 I attended a seminar at a conference that struck a chord with something I had been thinking about – how to stop our school philosophy / mission statement from being just a document and making it live and breathe. In short, to stop people just saying it but actually reflecting it. The concept was called UGRs®, or ‘Unwritten Ground Rules’. It has been designed by Steve Simpson, an international speaker, consultant and author based in Australia. The references to his websites are at the end of this article and a lot of great further materials can be found there.

In the past I noticed that no matter how much of an induction teachers receive and how much information they are given such as computer rooms should be booked; materials should be shared in such and such a way, they quickly fall into the habits that all of the other teachers have i.e. materials are hoarded, computer rooms used sporadically and booked on the way to them. These are easy and not truly damaging to the school, but, combined with the UGRs® concept, it set us to wondering what else there is that we ask and expect people to do and what they actually do, and how we can change these behaviours.

“It is the UGRs® that drive people’s behaviour – incredibly, these are rarely if ever discussed openly.”

We undertook what is referred to as a “UGRs® Stock Take” at our last staff training day to find out what all staff actually thought about many aspects of the school before moving on to trying to adjust these. The procedure is described below.

We started by making sure our teams (admin, marketing and academic) were mixed together, and had an outside presenter come in to lead the session. However, equally this could be done with teams individually and led by the Director or Director of Studies. Leading sentences were then given to individuals to finish how they wanted to – the only condition was that they did so as honestly as they could. The ones we chose are given below, all given on separate slips of paper (for division later):

  • Around here, students are…
  • Around here, communication is …
  • Around here, displaying initiative gets you …
  • Around here, being open and honest gets you …
  • Around here, when it comes to working with other teams…
  • Around here, if you want a career…
  • Around here, if you criticise your boss …

(Take a moment to complete these for where you currently work – as honestly as possible. Write what you feel, without guilt or a sly smile at anyone to further a joke! Are you happy with the answers? Do they match your mission statement?)

Note: there is another stage you can put in this stock take, that of having staff collectively form the leading sentences by first thinking about what attributes and values they feel are important, and then changing these into leading sentences. We decided to give them the leading sentences due to time restrictions.

In true EFL style, these were then shared in small groups and the small groups completed them again in a way that reflected their group opinion. This was done to give a manageable number of responses, and to give us a picture of the corporate culture as a whole. We also offered the groups the opportunity at this stage to add in any other leading sentences that they chose to – interestingly, they added

  • Around here, teachers are…
  • Around here, professionalism is…
  • Around here, customer complaints are …

The same small groups then analysed these sentences; dividing these sentences into a positive, neutral or negative impact on the company. A score between + 10 (incredibly positive) and - 10 (really harmful) was then given to each of the sentences.
I’ve included a sample of the sentences that they came up with below (I’ve deliberately included some of the most negative):

  • Around here, students are vital for the survival of the company.
  • Around here, communication is done through the grapevine.
  • Around here, when it comes to working with other teams there’s potential
  • Around here, if you criticise your boss it’s ok if you do it to his face
  • Around here, professionalism is unclear

The groups then shared their sentences and whether they thought they were positive or negative, and some discussion evolved where groups disagreed.

Now comes the important part: turning these negatives into positives. To address the negatives that are coming across in our corporate culture we needed to decide what we wanted the corporate culture to be. To stop this becoming another document, it is important that all staff put these forward, and we all agree – they need to be ‘wanted’ to make a difference, or else they become just another piece of paper. This took a large amount of time – so much that we had to revisit it in a second session before we all agreed on what kind of company we wanted to work in.

The result is the following UGRs®:

Around here:

  • Students are treated with respect. We understand that they have varied needs and wants, and will help them wherever we can.
  • Communication is open, in every direction and in between teams, and done face to face when possible. If you are open and honest, changes happen and you have nothing to fear. If you feel unclear about something, you can ask.
  • You can discuss anything with your boss, but do it face to face
  • Working together is better, and we do it whenever we can.
  • Professionalism is expected. Be on time, be ready, be dressed for the job, go beyond the minimum and, above all, be passionate!

It’s important to note here that we were not expecting this change to happen overnight, and this is the last stage of working with UGRs® – embedding them. The first thing we all did was agree to try and act in the spirit of UGRs® at all times. Display them – they are prominent on our staff room wall. And revisit them – they are a reoccurring item on our staff meeting agenda.

Has it had an impact? Yes, positively. Staff do act in the spirit of them, and it has made our school a happier, more productive workplace. Since we introduced them I have had to tell nobody about punctuality or timekeeping, teachers seek each other out more for planning instead of me pushing them to, and students seem generally happier. Our mission statement has stayed the same, but I feel we are a little bit closer to it now than we were before.

If you do tomorrow,

What you did yesterday

Your future

Is history…….

If you do tomorrow

What we’ve covered today

Your future

Is historic!!
(Steve Simpson, 2001)

The full list of completed sentences that our staff came up with can be found here:

[Please note this article is from 2011 and the links may be out of date]


And the full list of UGRs® that we follow can be found here: http://www.divshare.com/download/15593836-e50

For more information on this topic please visit: http://www.ugrs.net/ http://www.steve-simpson.com/

Thank you very much to Steve Simpson, for the use of his terms and ideas here, and helping us change the way things are done at IH Brisbane!