George Lucas Educational Foundation
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School Leadership

A Principal’s Perspective: The Importance of School Culture

Building a strong school culture helps breed student success.

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.

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. 

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The Educational Tourist's picture

What a wonderful breath of fresh air to see how administrators are taking culture seriously. Teaching is a calling unlike some professions and teachers need to feel appreciated and really an integral part of the system. I had one principal, in my 15 years of teaching in many schools in several states, who made us all feel valued. We all admired him and would have walked on fire to make things happen! Needless to say we were a very successful school. Nice memories. Now, I carry on those ideas of making people feel valued and necessary to the common goal when planning vacations for families! Everyone plays a part in the travel experience!

Kyle Wagner's picture
Kyle Wagner
Founder and Lead Consultant at TEC Consulting

Glad you enjoyed the post. :) I truly believe that teachers have the hardest, most demanding job in the world, and need to be acknowledged constantly for the groundbreaking work they are doing. Maybe you could forward the article on to that special principal you had as an affirmation of the positivity he created in the school culture.

Concerned Teacher's picture

I have seen gossip, gaslighting and miscommunication become extremely problematic for teachers in education lately. This negative behavior seems to have resulted in the changes that have taken place with the leadership model over the past 8 years. Unfortunately the current leadership model seems to creates division, displaces children as top priority and has created a system of communication where much is lost in translation. The current team leader model makes it hard to suggest opinions without backlash.

After teaching for 20 years in elementary education, I have seen positive and negative changes take place. I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth, mandates come and go. I have witnessed struggles and growth. Of all the changes, I find the model that has been least effective to education is the team leader model accepted by most districts. I say this as a teacher who has been leader on and off the teams so I view it from both sides. Before the team model, the entire school was a team, all were leaders. We were friends across the grades, we lunched as one team, our team was our school, each equal members. Our goal was to improve our school for children. Grade levels would meet and discuss plans. There was not one chosen leader, all were leaders, voices were equal, and conversation were natural as the politics of the meeting were not predominant, rather the problems occurring in the classroom at that moment.

Team models where there is one leader automatically create division. Pecking order is established, survival is the goal rather than the issues in the classrooms. Becoming friends with the leader so you have a voice is the underlying concern. Rather than focusing on problems at hand, there is a natural propensity to constantly speak in a manner that will be well perceived by the leader who then has discussions with the coach and principal. This is not always the case because there is the occasional team that works, however it is a shot in the dark where we assume positive intentions at all times from every member, there is no flexibility there. Please also consider the competition this elicits in our profession. If a teacher is a very good teacher this can be viewed as a threat to a leader's position. In addition, if a teacher wants the position of head teacher, finding faults where faults don't exist can and will become a typical survival strategy.

This system automatically takes away transparency. The team members can't be transparent, and the leader must speak in a way that is acceptable to the administration. This is a system where control is not in the hands of the teachers. The leadership meetings become a place where conversations are had in privacy and only the chosen are invited. We need to go back where meetings are had as one team, where all are invited. As it stands the concern of what is happening to the school that used to funnel through a unified system has been replaced and thrust through a bureaucratic machine no better than an elaborate creation of Rube Goldberg. With the past team model, all were team leaders, the conversations, leadership and objectivity were organic and student driven. On given days, different members lead due to natural changes, good days, good plans and organic dynamics that could be called into action depending on the situation.

Schools need to return to the traditional team model where we are trusted to discuss topics we see as problematic. The micro management must be removed so we can see what is happening in our own classrooms at the moment instead of being forced to be bobble heads in survival mode. Our power as teachers has been diminished through this current model I am afraid. We are gaslighting each other because we are in survival mode as opposed to being trusted to be the professionals we were trained to be. We need to call this for what it is and work towards a system that gives all voice and respect so that we can once again return to the immediate needs at hand, see each other as supporters rather than adversaries and become the actual teams we were without feeling oppressed or resentful. Veteran teachers and new teachers must have equal voice as it used to be and problems should be taken to one person, the administrator, so we are no longer playing a game of telephone but actually addressing the needs of our students.

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