George Lucas Educational Foundation
New Teachers

Adapting to the Culture at a New School

Learning a school’s core values, keeping your sense of humor, and productively managing disagreements are keys to a great first year.

August 25, 2023
lechatnoir / iStock

If you‘re a new teacher, working at a school for the first time can be both exciting and overwhelming. When entering a new school environment, meeting and building relationships with other educators, students, and parents takes time. The culture of the school you are serving has been formed over many years, and it can take time to adjust and acculturate to.

A school’s culture may be difficult to identify at first, but over time you will begin to see it and feel it. In general, the culture of an organization is “the way we do things around here.” In contrast, school climate is “the way we feel around here,” which is a perception that can change from day to day.

Key Ideas to Keep in Mind

1. Learn a school’s core values. Being familiar with a school’s mission and vision and core values may help you gain an understanding of why the everyday practices and policies of a school are in place. However, do not be alarmed if you see contradictions between the school’s core values and its everyday practices. These contradictions are common in most organizations. The most important thing to know is whether the school is endeavoring to align its policies and practices with its core values and consistently trying to reach its goals.

2. Find ways to be a leader and a follower. Being a good follower is essential to good leadership. It reduces conflict, gives a good example for others to follow, and shows a willingness to serve others. The characteristics of a good leader and follower are important to being a good school employee. The following, taken from the book The Leader of the Future, edited by Frances Hesselbein et al., is a great approach for a teacher in a new school for the first time:

3. Keep a good sense of humor. Not taking yourself too seriously is a good principle for teachers in general, but it’s especially important for those who are teaching at a school for the first time. Children love to laugh, so the ability and willingness to laugh with them where appropriate will help you make a connection and build better teacher-student relationships.

It’s also helpful because as a new teacher adjusting to a new culture and environment, you will make some mistakes. The ability to laugh at yourself can lower your stress level and make your job more enjoyable. 

4. Proactively manage disagreement and problems. Anywhere there are people, there will be disagreement and problems. One of the most effective things you can do as a new teacher is to find the person or decision maker who can help you and go directly to them to share your concerns. Many schools have mentor programs that give the teacher a go-to person they can see if they are having a problem or disagreement.

If possible, ask questions to get clarification, and make suggestions about workable solutions or areas of agreement or compromise. Also, as a new teacher, be aware of the school’s organizational chart, and know who can help you with the particular problem or disagreement you may be having. 

5. Realize that you and the school may not be a good fit. Unfortunately, there are times when a beginning or veteran teacher in a new school environment may find themselves consistently feeling stressed and unhappy. The new teacher may realize over time that the culture is not aligned with their personal values. For example, you may find that you are consistently assigned tasks that don’t match your strengths or job description. If you have looked for ways to improve the situation and things are not getting better, it is best to discover that early and look for a school that is a better fit.

Although working at a new school has its challenges, there are things that can make the adjustment easier. Understanding what the school values, endeavoring to be a good employee, knowing what to do when there is a problem or a disagreement, and knowing that the school’s climate can change from day to day, impacting your mood and perception, can help your first year go more smoothly.

In the end, adjusting to an unfamiliar environment and building relationships takes time. Be patient with yourself, keep a good sense of humor, and learn to ask questions of the right people, and you will find your first year at a new school to be a successful one.

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