School Leadership

Building a Positive Staff Culture Takes Work

If schools want a strong collegial atmosphere, they need to foster it intentionally—both across the school and on smaller scales.

May 7, 2018
A group of teachers enjoying coffee together
©iStock/jacoblund

Some of the best professional advice I’ve heard and keep returning to is “Designate time to what you want.” If teachers want a stronger classroom community, they need to use instructional time to build it. If leaders want more collaboration, they must allot time in the master schedule. The same idea holds if a school wants a strong adult culture.

And schools should want this. Kent Peterson, a professor who studies educational leadership, says that culture is always at play in a school’s success or failure, whether members of that culture realize it or not. Other research indicates that schools focused on building relational trust among staff are more successful at sustained implementation of best practices.

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Speaking from personal experience, the more I know and trust my colleagues, the better I work with them. I’m fortunate to have worked in several schools that allotted time to building a strong adult culture. Here are some of the best strategies I’ve seen.

School-wide Systems

Social and emotional professional development sessions: We’ve all experienced feeling tired, burnt out, or insecure about our efficacy. I know this from my experience to be especially true in schools serving at-risk populations.

In one of those schools, our leadership addressed these feelings directly through professional development sessions called Fill Your Cup, which incorporated social and emotional learning. We had staff members sign up to lead activities they enjoyed, such as yoga, cooking, running, biking, singing karaoke... really anything that brought them joy.

Then each staff member signed up for two of the sessions to “fill their cups.” These sessions were always highly rated by our staff, and the next day the school always seemed to have a lightness in the air. The sessions provided a chance for staff to get to know each other in new ways, to blow off steam, to build stronger connections with each other, and to break down barriers of mistrust.

Public acknowledgements: Many schools start or end staff meetings with shout-outs, a beneficial practice. I’ve seen leadership go beyond this—one example is a practice I call “collective cards.” My school’s leaders had staff members with different roles sit together at tables. Each person wrote their name in the center of a card (a large index card or half sheet of paper will work), and passed it around the table so that each person there could offer a note of thanks or acknowledgement. This continued until everyone at a table had signed all the cards, and then they were returned to their owners.

This kind of practice allows people to offer a compliment they might not normally make the time for, and it also encourages staff to find the good in everybody they work with. A different approach is to end meetings by encouraging staff members to email a colleague a note of thanks.

Gatherings: We all know the cliché: the family that _____ together, stays together. This can apply to school communities as well. Create opportunities for social gatherings outside of the school day. Make sure they don’t always include alcohol—find a variety of activities to meet the needs of many different types of people.

One person doesn’t have to do all the work—try organizing a social committee. And offer opportunities for staff members’ families to mingle as well.

Food: Need I say more? What meeting hasn’t been improved by the addition of food? There’s not always money in the budget, but potlucks and staff sign-ups can play a role. Either way, caring for a belly is caring for a heart, and that goes a long way.

Working on a Smaller Scale

Sometimes it’s hard to start with school-wide systems. Here are two successful smaller scale initiatives I’ve experienced.

Door banners: Who doesn’t want to walk up to their classroom and see wonderful things written about them? At one of my schools, the leadership organized door banners. We put chart paper on the teachers’ doors and organized times to visit each other and write celebratory notes.

Not only was this beneficial to teachers, but it was also valuable for students to see the adults participating in a healthy, collaborative culture.

Positive classroom observations: So often when teachers are visited by observers, they tense up as they feel they’re being judged on what’s not good enough. Additionally, in our professional desire to be better, we forget to pause and reflect on what’s going well.

As an instructional coach, one way I alleviated these deficit-based approaches was to visit teachers specifically to note effective moves. During these observations, I would take notes about all the instructional decisions that were to be celebrated... and there were many! Classroom visits focused on strengths shift a school away from a deficit model to an assets-based model.

I want to end with the importance of hearing the staff’s voices. The most important element of a strong adult culture is that staff never feel like things are being done to them, but rather with them. Some of the ideas here might work for your school and some might not. The only way to know is to ask. Use surveys to gather feedback about your school’s adult culture, suggestions for improving it, reflections on PD sessions, and other creative community-building ideas.

After all, a school where teachers know, trust, and honor each other is a school where students learn best.