Administration & Leadership

Assessing School Culture and Climate as a New Principal

Like the leaves and roots of a tree, a school’s culture and climate are connected, and both need tending to foster a thriving community.

May 31, 2024
Gary Waters / Ikon Images

When you begin your first principalship—and even during your interview for the position—one of your priorities should be to assess the question “How are things done around here?” You need to ask questions that help you determine if the position will be a good fit and if you possess the skills necessary to move the school in a positive direction.

New principals need to gather critical information about curriculum, instruction, student and parent engagement, discipline, communication, collaboration, traditions, values, expectations, and more. You do this by talking to veteran staff and stakeholders (parents, volunteers, community leaders, fellow administrators, etc.), in formal and informal settings. Listen carefully to their descriptions of what works and what does not. The information you gather will help you determine what needs to be closely observed, evaluated, discussed, negotiated, and clarified as you collectively begin to shape the school’s culture.

As you ask questions to assess “how we do things around here,” what you will hear should inform you about the status of the school’s culture. “How we feel about working here” reflects the climate of the school. If you see, hear, and observe situations where it is apparent that adults do not like or respect each other, or they feel unwelcome, that indication of a “cold” climate implies that there are structural concerns with the culture.

Culture reflects the positive and negative behaviors of your staff. Climate indicates the temperature of how they feel about each other.

Your focus needs to be on getting the adults to understand, agree with, and adopt core values, beliefs, and traditions, the fundamental constructs that form and support school culture.

One way you can do that is to consider an analogy of healthy and dying trees. A tree that’s vigorously growing has a root system that continuously expands, deeper and deeper in nutrient-rich soil. The root system represents the culture. Observers such as parents, students, and community members cannot see the strong or weak structure of that root system.

What they see and feel when they are at your school reflects the climate, or their first impression and feelings. People talk about the beauty of the leaves on a healthy tree. They will instinctively know when they experience a positive school climate because the culture is deeply rooted and constantly receiving the nutrients that promote growth that all can see and feel.

What are some examples of those nutrients? What are the guiding principles that reflect “how we do things around here”? What must a principal do to support, nurture, and highlight those ideologies?

Assess the climate to transform the culture

Start by assessing how people feel at work. If the morale is low, find out why. Fear is often a powerful motivator of poor self-confidence.

When staff members are confused about what they can and cannot do, misinterpret routines and rituals, or lack cohesiveness and belonging, principals must work to rally their staff to engage in actions that promote progress while reducing or eliminating actions that are dysfunctional.

Establish clear expectations

One of the most important actions that will define positive progress is attaining consensus regarding the definitions of discipline and punishment. Discipline means to teach. Punishment should reflect consequences for refusal to follow rules. For example, once the expectations for using the restroom have been explained, with adequate and appropriate interventions for students who need them, only then is it proper to issue consequences for misbehavior.

When adults have only a vague understanding of how you will hold them accountable for what they’re doing, such as teaching students how to display positive social skills and behaviors, your “tree” will not grow.

Identify core values

Values and beliefs are hard to identify and explain. They represent what a school staff deems most important. It may be simply maintaining a clean classroom or enforcing uniform hallway movement and conduct.

Moreover, culture consists of elements that make work and life in a school comfortable, predictable, and safe. The type of humor, symbols, stories, heroes, ceremonies, shared beliefs, and roles that exist in a school will reflect the essential components and norms of school culture.

Identify the sprouts and the dying limbs

Staff members have different strengths. The challenge for principals is to identify and nurture those whose actions promote growth and to work closely to eradicate instructional weaknesses and behaviors that interfere with the healthy development of the culture. When necessary, you may need to cut and remove the dead growth.

It takes time to change and transform a school culture. What a new principal typically encounters can be described as a pseudo-community, a stage where staff appear to get along but do not. Differences are covered up, but when the differences can no longer be ignored, staff will vent their frustrations and the culture will become chaotic. Many people will be unhappy.

Groups must experience tough times, however, to work through issues, challenge and address their egos, and eventually accept normative behaviors that form the root structures of their mutual interactions and work. That is known as a true community, one in which people work well together, shine, and celebrate their collective success.

It’s the principal’s job, with input and assistance from every member of the staff, to understand how the tree is fed; have the power to nurture it; and trim it so that there will be beautiful blossoms, fully developed leaves, and healthy foliage: a thriving and welcoming school community.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Administration & Leadership
  • School Culture

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.