School Leadership

A Principal’s Perspective: The Importance of School Culture

Building a strong school culture helps breed student success.

November 28, 2016
back of principal looking at room full of students
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As a school leader, your top commitment is to improve student learning. So refining instructional practice among your staff should be at the top of your priority list. But before you go sifting through data and refining your school’s standards, you should keep in mind that creating a positive school culture can have a remarkable impact on the success of your school.

The ASCD book How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom shows how positive school culture encourages greater effort and productivity, improves collegial collaboration, supports successful change and improvement efforts, builds commitment and identification of students and teachers with your school, and amplifies energy and motivation of staff members and students.

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And, really, what leader wouldn’t want a more energized and motivated staff?

While there is no exhaustive list of the most effective strategies for creating this sense of community at your school, I have tried many over the years. The following techniques and examples represent my top five. 

1. Plan a Bridge Program for New Students and Staff

We were all newbies at one point. Plan immersive experiences that help newbies fit into the culture of the school. At University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, students begin learning the culture curriculum before the first day of school. Every new middle school student is required to attend a three-week academy to meet his or her teachers and peers and engage in a learning experience. Similarly, at High Tech Middle School in San Diego, students attend a 10-day bridge program to complete a project-based experience in order to be ready for their first projects when they start the school year. These immersive experiences allow new staff and students to feel a sense of community on the first day of school.

2. Make School-Wide Goals Visible

Where do you post the goals for your school? Chances are, they are hidden away in a website or a staff room. Post school-wide goals in a visible place so that the entire school community will feel a shared sense of purpose. You can also recite your mission statement over the PA each day and provide an example of a student or classroom that is achieving it. In “The Principal’s Role in Successful Schools,” Shelly Habegger finds that even schools with a disproportionately high number of underqualified teachers and students from disadvantaged backgrounds experience greater academic success when a positive school culture is created.

3. Keep a Loyal Opposition

How do leaders move the school in a positive direction when there are loud voices that stand in opposition? Quite simply, according to Thomas Sergiovanni in The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective, keeping a loyal opposition builds trust. At the International School of Beijing, for example, before rolling out any initiative to the faculty, the head of the school always asked those opposed to provide their critique. This gesture transformed the biggest naysayers into his greatest proponents. Another way to do this is to create a survey that asks staff members to rate their commitment to fulfilling each school-wide initiative. Invite them to include the additional support they need to reach each goal.

4. Establish Collaborative Networks

Once you have identified the greatest obstacles to achieving your school-wide goals, hire an educational consultant to help you overcome these obstacles. In New York City, LaShawnna Harris, the principal of P.S. 330Q in Queens, partnered with Morrison Healthcare to improve school culture through staff appreciation days and team-building activities. The school saw a 22 percentage point increase in the number of teachers who found the principal’s vision to be clear, as well as a 43 percentage point increase in the number of teachers who felt supported.

5. Hold School-Wide Rallies and Assemblies

How often does your whole school gather? While many schools have a smattering of assemblies spread across the school year, it’s less common to gather every morning. At Quest College Preparatory School in McCallen, Texas, the school gathers daily to celebrate achievements and emphasize expectations for behavior and character. These celebrations often include a school song, announcements by students of upcoming events, and sometimes a brief showcase of student work. Beyond building school spirit and unity, a daily routine like this helps keep you focused on the big picture as a leader (Related Article: Daily Assemblies: Deepening Relationships Through Ritual and Recognition)

Motivating a school is an effort that lasts throughout the year. By focusing on instilling a positive school culture, principals can make these tasks manageable and fulfilling.

How do you support a strong school culture in your building? Please share your strategies in the comments below.