The Culture Code

“The Culture Code”, with Bill Rich

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts?

The 21st Century Classroom podcastIn this episode of our podcast, we kick off our fourth season with legendary librarian Jeanie Phillips.  She’ll be sitting down with a series of guests from around the #vted ecosphere and …reviewing books. Not just any books, but books that can help educators make meaning from the wonderful, complicated and challenging jobs they have of saving the world.

First up, Jeanie talks with noted Vermont educator and consultant Bill Rich (twitter: @rhlearning). Bill is a longtime-classroom teacher who now works with schools, providing guidance on brain-based learning. He’s also the co-director of What’s the Story VT? and LearningLabVT.

Jeanie and Bill sat down to talk about Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. The book was recently chosen for a Vermont-wide twitter-based book chat as well.

Over to Jeanie and Bill.


A full transcript appears below.


Jeanie Phillips: Last spring I was at a workshop with you, and you recommended this book: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle. I ordered it right away because you give great book suggestions. And… almost gobbled it whole. I read it almost in a day because it was that engrossing. And the book starts with this question:

Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts?

While others add up to be less and that’s the focus of the group. Could you give us, in a nutshell, sort of the arc of the book and what it tries to do?

The Culture Code
photo credit: Emily Hoyler

Bill Rich: Sure! I’ll begin by saying part of the transition from being a classroom teacher to working into somebody who’s a coach within schools, is you begin to notice over time, wow: every school is the same. And every school is very different. What’s going on here? They look the same, maybe some differences, but what really it comes down to is every school has its culture. For me this book is so compelling. One, because it’s written by a writer who does a great job making it readable, and quick and research-based.

The other is that it’s such a helpful way to diagnose and figure out what to do with the fact that since cultures are different, if you’re not working within the culture or working to have the culture embrace an idea, it’s going to be rejected. So much depends on how the culture works and acts. And so over time I’ve realized I need to have that on the front end of the work, before we get to whatever the initiative or  the work happens to be.

Jeanie: That’s really interesting to me because this book is not about education.

It’s not focused on education. In fact, it explores research and anecdotes from all sorts of fields and then each section also ends with some ideas for action. But I found it completely relevant to everything I do as an educator, both in schools, in classrooms with students, but also with teacher teams, with administrators, with groups of collaborators. We’re going to explore how this non-education book has implications for our work in education.

The book is divided into three parts.

The first, “skill” as Coyle calls it, is Build Safety. The second skill is Share Vulnerability, and the third skill that he mentions is Establish Purpose. I think these all three have huge implications for our work in education and let’s just start with building safety. Bill, could you give us an overview of what Daniel Coyle means when he says Build Safety?

Skill #1: Build Safety

Bill Rich Red House Learning The Culture CodeBill: As I so that I’ll say, all three of these are working at once. He’s divided the month in this order Build Safety, Share Vulnerability and Establish Purpose, but part of building safety is having a clear purpose. They’re all entwined at once even though he lines them up. And to begin with safety, what I love about what Daniel Coyle does is he begins and talks about the brain and the amygdala. How the social emotional part of our brain, which is older and more powerful than that little cognitive part we like to hang onto, that’s the part that’s driving the bus.

So at your peril, you stay out of touch and in sync with where people are socially and emotionally. And you really need to start from that place. The mantra that comes up in this book for people when a team is really working:

We are close, we are safe, we share a future.

And that idea of being close and safe has to do with belonging. The idea we share a future is we’re doing something important, all of us and we’re all part of that, every one of us. That’s how I see the three connect.

I think one of the things Daniel Coyle does so well is sharing anecdotes about individuals and people who do a great job with that. One in particular is the coach Gregg Popovich. And when they follow him around, they learn, first of all, he does not use email or texts and he gets those printed out his email for him. All of his communication is face-to-face and in person. One of his mantras is, “Hug ’em and hold ’em.” The thing about the Gregg Popovich that people don’t realize is you’ll see him at times and he’s screaming at players. He is in their face. He’s being very frank with them.

But what people don’t understand is he has cultivated a relationship with them over time so that they expect that he demands a lot of them. But it comes from a place of warmth, connection, and he would say love.

This idea of building belonging for some people it can feel like, “Oh, here’s the thing, we’re doing, kumbaya…” Really, there are a lot of ways to do it.

But if people aren’t experiencing belonging, you’re not going to have them being willing to be vulnerable to do what real deep work requires. I think that’s just a fundamental piece that he does a great job describing in the book.

Jeanie: I love how you pull out that research about the brain. I feel like Daniel Coyle says really clearly in this section that we need to send a message to groups that we’re working with. That one, that the individuals are a part of the group. That, two, the group is special; it has high standards. And three that, you as a leader, as a teacher, believe that each of the individuals can reach those standards. And that sends this implicit message: this is a safe place to give effort.

For me, that felt like really relevant to what we do in classrooms with students. And the kind of space we need to create for student brains so they feel like they can take risks and engage fully. Can you think of some examples of what that might look like in the classroom?

Bill: Let’s start with the classroom.

School has just begun and everybody’s so excited at the beginning of the year. And when students’ brains are arriving, no matter what they’re exhibiting, what their brains are really trying to figure out is:

Do I belong here? Is this a safe place? Is there purpose for me?

One of the things I loved about being a teacher is it is remarkable how many students show up ready to rethink that. Like: maybe this is the year. Maybe it’s going to happen somewhere, someplace that I’m going to have this.

So, belonging cues? The challenge of it is it’s not just telling people they belong. They need to experience it everywhere.

It’s from the way secretary speaks to them. The way adults talk in front of the students. The way the room is organized. It’s who has a voice in the room. Is it equitable? Is it just the teacher? We need to be really deliberate in thinking about what are the belonging cues we’re sending so that students are willing to be drawn out? If you see education as a place where compliance is supposed to happen and people are supposed to learn what to do, well you don’t. That’s a different set. There’s not much belonging in that setting.

But if you’re looking to draw people out,  for them to discover who they are and for them to do some of the best work they’ve ever done and become someone better than they even imagined they could be? Well, you’re going to need belonging cues. You’re going to need the kind of culture where people feel safe and inspired to do that. That’s not with a pep talk, right? It’s not with a little PowerPoint with great quotations and pictures. It’s not with a little funny video. It is those things and a thousand other pieces. As the book says — and it’s true — the classroom culture isn’t what people are. Culture is what people do.

Jeanie: How do you transform your culture to one of belonging?

I think that’s all fabulous and I think there’s some great action steps at the end of the book that get at just that. One that I loved was about expressing gratitude. Coyle says we should say thank you over and over again more than we think is necessary, but that we shouldn’t just thank people for the things that seem positive. We should also thank the messenger who brings us bad news or tough feedback. Sometimes it’s that kid who shows that they’re bored and we should thank them. You’re right. I have been talking too long. It’s time to turn it over to you. Or thank them for drawing our attention to what needs to change to make the classroom more engaging.

He also suggests that we listen with our whole body, which can be really hard for teachers to be really present to our students, but that communicates belonging. And that we should share our own weaknesses and failures. Often principals want to know how do we create a failure-friendly classroom, a classroom where students can take risks and be willing to make mistakes. I think as teachers, we really own that in our own ability to do that in front of our class.

Bill: The thank you note is such an important strategy. One of the things I’m involved in, co-directing What’s The Story with Tim O’Leary for colleges. In that course for students engaged in social action and making films, one of the things we do on our overnight retreats is we bring hundreds of thank you cards. And students write thank you cards, and quickly we learned a couple things. Some of them have not done that before and they’re not even quite sure how to do it. Yeah. Very important.

Jeanie:  Let’s think about the implications for teaching teams or faculties or groups of administrators. When we think about, at that level, are there different implications for building belonging in order to Build Safety?

Bill: I think two real things that come from the book that affirm my beliefs. One is that this idea that clarity creates confidence. And the idea that clarity dissolves resistance. That most leaders underestimate by factor of 10 how often, how regularly, they need to repeat in myriad ways: this is why we’re doing this, this is what we’re doing.

I think the other piece, and this is a more challenging piece than even being clear, is that the leader should lead with vulnerability.

This is a real challenging piece. And Daniel Coyle does a great job showing why it’s so important that he makes clear, especially for leaders — and I see classroom teachers as leaders to their own students.

The idea is: you need to know your fallibility and you need to make it public and known.

How to do that can be very challenging for people, but that’s the kind of vulnerability that precedes trust. That kind of leadership has people leaning in. Because everybody’s a bit broken, right? Everybody’s got their things they’re strong with. We need to do this together. And plus everybody knows the leader’s weakness. Why don’t they just go ahead and share it in ways that are not apologetic? Not like,

‘This is what I do well’. [But] ‘This is what I need help with. Here’s a story that kind of shows a mistake I made.’

Bu it’s that kind of leadership and it’s the same in the classroom too.

If I’m up there: here’s how to write an essay and I know how to do it really well… [sighs] But if I tell some anecdotes, oh my God, look at this thing I tried to write the other day.

Jeanie:  I love what you’re saying because what you’re telling me is that leaders, administrators, but also teacher leaders can model exactly what we want also to happen in the classroom. By modeling, sharing their own weaknesses and failures early and often. I also remember the coach you mentioned earlier, Greg Popovich. He and the founder of McDonald’s were both known as people who picked up trash. I think that has huge implications for faculties and for teacher teams when a leader is willing to do the dirty work. Whether it’s providing a snack or cleaning up after, picking up trash off the floor, taking notes. Those send signals that this is valuable work and I’m willing to do it too, and that also builds belonging.

Bill:  Yes, that ‘Be The Change’ piece. That symbolic leadership — not strategically — but just this is how I am. Which speaks to what I expect.

Jeanie: Another action that Coyle suggests that I think is easier to do in the classroom with students than with adults? Adults are often resistant. This idea of having fun together. That laughter builds belonging not in a shallow way, but in really a deeper way than all our talking can do. Having a little fun together goes a long way towards building a culture where everybody feels like they belong. They build on each other’s ideas instead of jockeying.

Bill: That’s right.

Jeanie: I feel like we could talk a lot more about building belonging. Are there any last words before we move on to vulnerability?

Bill: Building belonging is an endless act.

Jeanie: Yeah, over and over and over again. It’s not a one and done, excellent.

Skill #2: “Sharing Vulnerability”

The second section of the book is about sharing vulnerability. And early in the section, Coyle talks a little bit about this “vulnerability loop”. He says: Person A sends a signal of vulnerability. Person B detects that signal and responds by signaling their own vulnerability. And that when person A detects that signal of vulnerability, they build closeness and trust. He says it’s counterintuitive. We think you build trust so you can share vulnerability, but actually the opposite is true. That you share vulnerability in order to build trust. I would love your thoughts on that and the implications for classrooms first.

Bill: You described it so well. The word that gets used in the book is there’s a synchronization when that happens. Starting to get more in sync, and again, not just on the cognitive, what-we’re-thinking level, but it’s a real feeling in our body. It’s comfortable. It does a lot more than just us saying, “Cognitively, I’m starting to trust this person.” The other piece to that that I think is so important is vulnerability precedes trust — great insight — but vulnerability precedes mistrust, too.

The piece with that is our schools are vulnerable places. For teachers, for students.

The question becomes when those vulnerable moments happen, are they being greeted in a way and welcomed in a way that is open to that? Unfortunately, what can happen is vulnerability creates mistrust. Because people’s vulnerabilities — especially in schools that are moving so quickly — they get masked over. Then people start playing certain roles because they’re very vulnerable. It’s not going to happen overnight where people, all of a sudden: “Here, hey, we’re going to work on culture!” or, “We’re going to circle up in our PLC’s!” There are lot of habits and patterns that have been built up over years and it’s going to take some changing in terms of how people do things. It’s not going to happen somehow without that trust.

Again, how does that happen unless the leader is modeling it? How can there be a chance for it to happen? Because we’re not lacking in vulnerability. What we’re lacking in is how are we really communicating with each other about that? Over time, are we creating spaces where people can slow down, and recognize this is one of those times and spaces:

Are we safe? Are we belonging? Do we know our purpose?

Unless that’s revisited over and over time, as each time that happens, if the answer over time doesn’t start to become “Actually, I’m starting to get what we’re trying to do” and, “Actually you know the other day I started to find the feeling. I was feeling pretty good. I showed somebody something.” It’s those little victories, that attention to detail, that again, unless the leader is modeling it, sharing how that’s happening, absent the demand for results on test scores, right? Those things will take care of themselves if people feel safe, they belong and everybody’s on board with the purpose.

Jeanie: I love that. I love this idea that the leader sets the tone. nd I think Coyle points out some really practical steps you can take and use as some metaphors in those two that I really enjoyed.

He talked about listening like a trampoline.

He said, first off, a trampoline is supportive, right? You take a supportive stance and that you’re helpful when you’re doing that work. That you ask occasional questions, not so many questions. You ask occasional questions, that might gently challenge somebody’s assumptions. A trampoline isn’t just entirely passive, it gives you a little bounce.

He’s asking you to really think about how might you gently ask somebody to think critically about what they’re saying. Then finally, after much listening, you can make a suggestion that might open alternative paths. You’re not giving them an answer, But you’re saying: “have you tried”… “might you think about…” And that draws out vulnerability and allows people to feel like they can tell you what’s going on with them. They can struggle with a problem with you instead of offering quick knee-jerk solutions and ideas.

You listen deeply. It’s an underrated skill, listening, isn’t it?

Bill:  It is. Character, there’s so many great characters in the book, right? As you said at the beginning. Ed Catmull, who was head of Pixar. And what he talks about is the mistake that leaders make, is they’re so unarmored with the outcome they’re trying to get to — “These proficiency-based graduation requirements, you’ve got to get this PLPs and these are crucial!” (And by the way, they’re beautiful. They’re elegant. We’re lucky to be in Vermont.) But it’s whatever the focus of the work is, is where their attention lies. And what they can miss is that, remember, if you give a good idea to a mediocre team? They’re going to screw it up.

If you give a good idea to a good team? They’re going to make it better.

"what teachers know and they express this in a variety of ways: we've changed the focus and done a lot of things over the years... without quite ever feeling like we really did that well. The danger of that is people develop a learned helplessness because the locus of control has been lost."


If we can let go of some of the energy of the work of the day and the press of the goals and what we’re required to do —  which are realities and done well, they could really be helpful to our learners. And I think our teaching lives could be better. bBut it’s about working on the teamwork. And what teachers know and they express this in a variety of ways: we’ve changed the focus and done a lot of things over the years… without quite ever feeling like we really did that well. The danger of that is people develop a learned helplessness because the locus of control has been lost.

Or we’re being asked to do all these things — we have to do this, to do this, do this. Rather than the emphasis being, “How do we focus on making our team work better?” And having those teams figure out how they’re really going to make these things happen with the help of leaders. But the idea is that somehow we should focus more on the teamwork and the very important work we’re doing. It’s about getting the teamwork right and helping them know when they’re working well and when they’re not. Rather than re-clarifying for the 20th time just: here’s exactly what everybody should be doing.

Jeanie: That reminds me of another anecdote from the book. About the military and after-action reviews.

This idea that after an action of some sort, you sit down and you really look at it critically and debrief:

  • What did we intend to happen?

  • What actually happened?

  • And what went well and what might we do differently?

It reminds me of the debrief in a protocol session. But so often in schools, it’s like we’re on the front lines and we’re so busy doing that we don’t make time to reflect. And we know as John Dewey said, we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. That that’s a way of sharing vulnerability, is looking back and saying,

“How did that exhibition night we had go? What did we intend to happen? Then what actually happened? What went really well that we might try to do again? And what might we do to make it better?”

Whether it’s an exhibition night or an art night or student-led conferences. That we take the time to do the reflecting we need to do to make the learning and the exhibition of learning even better.

Bill: Daniel Coyle looks at different organizations and he looks at strategies they use. And across these organizations, all of them have a formal review process. These parent conferences we’re going to have. We’ve been working on this for months. Here it comes. We do it.

If there really could be this kind of an after-action review, wow, could things get better fast. But often people don’t feel safe enough.

What the military will do is before any kind of action, they have a red team and the red team comes up and says, here’s everything that will probably go wrong.

Here are things that are going around that you’re not even– because that group-think will start happening. “How are we going to do this?” “That’s a great idea.” “We’re going to do this. We’re educators.” “We love each other. Here we go!” How do we critically support each other so that we’re all getting better at what we’re doing because it’s all of us, right? We have a shared purpose that is rooted in the relationship of belonging. Some people want to shortcut it. They just want to go to the frank feedback. “I just want to tell people what I really think” or these leadership toughen up. We should be able to … it’s rooted in relationships. It’s not rooted in being rude.

Jeanie: Yes, you make me think of two things and one is that it can be really uncomfortable because it feels inefficient, but over the long run you will get better faster from doing all this reflection and sharing vulnerability. It makes me think about how uncomfortable that can be in schools because we have so much to do, we feel like we always need to be efficient.

The other thing it makes me think of is that so much of the time, whether it’s administrators to teachers or teachers to students, our job is about giving feedback.

Administrators give teachers feedback, teachers give students feedback. In order to share vulnerability, we can’t just be giving feedback; we have to ask for it. Christy Nold is one of probably many teachers who have this practice of regularly soliciting feedback on her instruction from her students and then showing them that feedback. As somebody who leads PD, I’m always asking my teachers to give me feedback on what worked well for them, what didn’t, so that I can fine-tune my delivery. I know you do that as well and it feels really important. I’m not just giving you feedback, I’m asking you for feedback as well. There’s a give-take to that.

Bill: Show me a school in Vermont right now where the leadership had the capacity and the wherewithal to approach proficiency-based learning with the approach: we will only do this for students once we’re doing it for teachers. Work with teachers. Here are the five fundamental skills we’re going to need to get better at in order to really do proficiency-based learning in a way that is personalized. The way we’re going to do that is we’re going to do a personalized learning plan for each of you, and we’re going to figure out through some assessments where all of you are, and then we’re going to have some together workshops. If somebody may need some flexible pathways, a little slower.

If teachers really experience that happening for them, they’d be like, yeah, this is the way they should be.

I see more and more schools catching up to that because the hypocrisy is becoming a little glaring. Now here we are. We talking about all these proficiencies and yet we put you in this room for 45 minutes. “These are the things we need to have, but by the way, less is more, don’t go too quickly, don’t cover these things and take care of those kids. See you in two weeks.” It’s maddening.

Jeanie: Just like we want to give our students feedback for improvement that’s really specific and actionable and timely, we as educators need feedback that isn’t judgmental. That’s not brutal honesty, but that is about: “Here are very specific things you might consider to improve your practice.” That there’s a continuity to that. If we’re receiving that feedback as educators, it empowers us also to give that kind of really actionable feedback to our students as well.

Bill: In an environment where you belong and feel safe and have a future with people, you want feedback. You don’t want to let the team down.

Skill #3: Establish purpose


Jeanie:  Excellent. Let’s move on to our third but completely interrelated section of the book. I love how you keep weaving them together. (I’ve been thinking I’m doing the part-to-whole and you’re doing the whole-to-part thinking). The third section of the book is about establishing a purpose and being really clear about what the priorities of the group or team are. Naming them, ranking them, and I think Coyle says be 10 times clearer than you think you should be. I’d love your thoughts on establishing purpose.

Bill: Sure, and I’m going to connect to another book by Daniel Coyle, but he wrote another book called The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music and Just About Everything Else. It’s all about very similar, but why does talent really blossom at certain times, what are the conditions that really accelerate deep learning. Part of that research he bumps into has to do with some research that was done at Stanford. This experiment was called The Tappers and Listeners. Group of 100 people, they put them in two rooms. One half gets a list of 40 of the most popular songs in the United States — Happy Birthday to You, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star — and their job is to practice tapping the melody.

In the other room, people get told, “You’re listeners, and we’re going to pair you up. And the tappers are going to tap that melody out and then you’re going to guess the song.” Tappers thought they were getting their message across one in two times. They were only getting it across one in 40 times. And this is because of this thing called the expert blind spot or The Curse of Knowledge. The more expertise you have, the better you understand something, the harder it is for you to imagine the beginner’s mind.

And so when I read this book and the whole idea of establishing purposes: you don’t establish it and it’s done. It’s like belonging cues. It never ends and whether it’s through imagery, through anecdotes, through catchphrases, through examples, through modeling it, through picking up trash. How is it that we act here? In every way, send those signals so that nobody misses it. Because we want this to be cognitive muscle memory. We care about each other. That’s the big thing at this school. That’s part of how we act and how we do. And that’s true in some schools. In some schools, we take care of ourselves.

Jeanie: I think about how often, in both my experience being in a specific school for a long period of time and then also traveling around to schools now as a professional development coordinator, I hear teachers say over and over again: “We have so many initiatives. We are trying to do so many different things. Now, Daniel Coyle uses catchphrases as clear reminders of where we’re headed, and so I built one. For me, I’ve been thinking about how one of my catchphrases might be: Student engagement yields student achievement.

That engagement is central to good learning. And that just helps me be really clear about my mission and schools. So I’m wondering — you gave one example, “At this school, we care about each other.” I’m wondering if you can think of any other examples of catchphrases that schools use to say what they’re about. To say what their purpose is.

Bill: First one that comes to mind is [Champlain Valley Union High School]; I believe this happened under the leadership of Val Gardner.

“Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of this place.”

What’s so great about that is you can’t think of a thing that could go wrong that wouldn’t have to do with one of those not really being attended to.

If you have to overthink it– you shouldn’t be thinking this, you should be acting it and feeling it. It’s muscle memory. It’s the way we do things around here.

Are we teaching so that people can name the topic and say what it’s about? Or are we teaching so people connect and synthesize and make deep meaning? When humans are in spaces where they’re making connections and learning to synthesize, and people are recognizing, “Oh, you’re having a transfer problem? Totally expected. We’ve asked you to do six different things …this year. It makes sense that some of them you’re dropping the ball on and you’ve got little lists about how to do each one.”

It’s like when we student teach, like our plans are three pages long. Transfer is you no longer spend so much energy on it because it’s become automatized. Right now, we’re far from automatized with the number and range of things we’re being asked to do, but I’m beginning to see in schools that have cultures that have really put teachers in a space where their locus and control hasn’t been robbed from them, I’m really beginning to see people who say, “Hey, this is all starting to come together a little bit. This is much better than grading. This is actually helpful information and [better than] that system I used to hate because it’s starting to happen.

But part of what teachers and all learners need is what Greg Popovich and others do so well, that really expanding out.

Here’s the big picture, remember? And then zooming right in, here’s the next step. Here’s where to go.

So it’s that back and forth of kind of telescoping-microscoping. Help remind people of the big idea in every way, every day and also make sure that there’s timely feedback for people. And how are they getting feedback? “Oh, this is the way we do things around here.”

Jeanie: There are two things there that really ring true for me and one is that if I’m, as an educator, not clear on the purpose, students certainly aren’t going to be. I need to have crystal-clear purpose and communicate that well and then the other thing you said, there’s something about heuristics that reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  And if we can create those heuristics with our students or with our faculty: if this, then why.

The last thing I will say is that there’s also a way in which we can share models of things that meet purpose or models of excellence by sharing our work through blogposts.

A lot of schools are doing that really well. Sam Nelson at Shelburne Community School does that really well. Sharing student work both in our buildings and beyond, using social media, and sharing teacher work in this open source way so we can show: here’s the student work that emerges and here’s the teacher work that goes with that. That open source quality that I see in a lot of Vermont educators is really valuable because it helps us communicate purpose.

Bill:  One of my favorite lines in the book comes from a CEO. And what he says is:

The more complex the problem, the more help you need to solve it.

I don’t think there’s something more complex than how to educate the public. That is a bold, ambitious effort that throughout the history of humankind not everybody’s bought into and still today, not everybody buys into. Unfortunately some people in public schools don’t even buy into it. But yet we’re all in our own classrooms privately trying to figure this out on our own rather than somehow working as teams. It’s kind of wild to me that that’s the case.

The Culture Code: "This is way too hard to do alone what we're being asked, especially here in Vermont. This is that village moment. We need to rethink about how we're working together as adults and there's a chance this will be better for us too, because the meaning-making was better for students."

I can’t imagine trying to do this work… and I’ve been very blessed and fortunate in my life. I’ve always team-taught, just was the culture of where I was. Schools there was always teams of people, they were always sharing work. I was lucky that was modeled for me. When I see some of the sterile environments people are in and they’re pulling their hair out, trying to do it alone. This is way too hard to do alone what we’re being asked, especially here in Vermont. This is that village moment. We need to rethink about how we’re working together as adults and there’s a chance this will be better for us too, because the meaning-making was better for students.

We’d be feeling more successful. We’d be feeling like, “Hey, you know what? I feel safe. I feel like I belong here. We’ve got a purpose. We can do this together.”

Jeanie: I think that’s really interesting. It connects with other research about people’s happiness in their work.

We are all more fulfilled in our work lives if we have a clear purpose and we feel like its meaningful.

It makes me think about how wouldn’t it be beautiful if every school in Vermont, the purpose it was so clear, you could ask anybody in town, “Hey, what do they do over at that school over there?” A community member can say it, a first grader could say it, could state the purpose. Every teacher, every paraprofessional, every support staff member in that building could say what the purpose is. From the top down to the ground, everybody knew. I think that would be a really wonderful thing.

Bill: If people had that muscle memory, it wouldn’t insulate those school systems from hard times. This is difficult work. There’s no utopia out there where, well, if we all just did this well, we’d have our feet up and just watch the students learn.

This is messy hard work, but with purpose we have resiliency.

It’s okay. The copier didn’t work. Somebody didn’t do this, or– this is my purpose. I can kind of push through for this.

One of the things I’ve found most moving in the book is this idea that this is so relationship-bound. And when people hear that sometimes they think, ah, here it comes, this intimacy. Yeah, it does have to do with intimacy and openness, but through many examples.

If it’s okay, I just want to read one excerpt here. I just want to read this piece and this is about Greg Popovich and he identified these three types of feedback. One is personal close connection. You’re right next to somebody and for Gregg Popovich, that’s where it’s won. It’s not an email, it’s not a text. Those things can’t be part of it, but it’s contact. By the way contact, he touches his shoulder, he comes in close — and I know some people don’t like that — he’s looking you in the eyes. That’s happening regularly with all of his players.

The other is performance feedback, so not just how you doing, checking, but then specific. Then the other is the big picture perspective. Just bear with me, can I read one paragraph?

Jeanie: Please do.


Popovich toggles among the three signals to connect his team the way a skilled director uses a camera. First, he zooms and close, creating an individualized connection. Then he operates in the middle distance, telling players the truth about their performance. Then he pans out to show the larger context in which their interaction is taking place. Alone, each of these signals would have a limited effect, but together they create a steady stream of magical feedback. Every dinner, every elbow touch, every impromptu seminar or politics and history adds up to build a relational narrative, you are part of this group.

This group is special. I believe you can reach high standards. In other words, Popovich’s yelling works in part because this is not just yelling. It is delivered along with a suite of other cues that affirm and strengthen the fabric of the relationships.

Jeanie:  Do you have other thoughts about the whole arc of this book and where it’s relevant for teachers, students, classrooms, schools?

Bill:  I have so many other thoughts that I daresay if I went into one of them, we wouldn’t ever get to the end. There’s so many great pieces here. My favorite, the favorite part of the book I’m not a big epilogue fan like — okay, what’s an epilogue? Is this worth reading or not? — it’s so brilliant because Daniel Coyle describes being invited to coach a writing team for one of his children. All of a sudden he’s going to be coach of a team and it’s while he’s writing this book. I’m not going to say too much more about it, but it is a wonderful synthesis at the end that shows it takes vulnerability to act differently, but it’s worth the risk.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this. I think we both give it a thumbs up and highly recommend it. If you’re interested in learning more about a culture, school culture and beyond, pick up a copy of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. Thanks so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed it.

Bill: You’re welcome and thank you to all of your colleagues who do so many great things around Vermont.

A huge thank you to Bill Rich for being so generous with his time. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and the Google Play store, or right here on our blog. Our music for this episode is by Argofox: Meizong & Yeeflex – Sunrise, used with permission.

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