February 10, 2015 by

Culture Eats Strategies for Breakfast!

WholeChildBannerBy Sean Slade

This tweet came across my desk about a month ago, and I promptly saved it.

Dwight Carter’s words stuck with me because they reemphasized the role that culture and climate play in aiding or hindering everything we try to do in schools. Culture is king—it is the undercurrent that pushes us forward or takes us all off message and off task.

In their new ASCD book School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker take this idea to heart, calling culture the “school’s personality”—a personality that affects not only instruction but also morale, efficiency, and outcomes. Culture influences student achievement, collegiality, shared values, decision making, risk taking, trust, openness, parent relations, leadership, communication, socialization, and organizational hierarchy.

Gruenert and Whitaker take a nuanced and interesting approach to describing the difference between school climate and culture and one that varies slightly from the ASCD Arias I coauthored with Peter DeWitt. In  School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? Peter DeWitt and I used the National School Climate Council definition,

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students’, parents’, and school personnel’s experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures. (p. 2)

Gruenert and Whitaker separate the two.

If the culture is a school’s personality, climate is its attitude. (p.11)

[And as a result,] whereas a change in climate can occur instantly, a change in culture is necessarily a slow evolution. (p.15)

So how do we change a culture? The first step is to ascertain what type of culture we have.

In January, ASCD posted a modified version of Gruenert and Whitaker’s School Culture and Collaborative Leadership Survey, which comes from chapter 6 of their book. The modified version asked respondents to rate their school’s culture, including levels of support by leadership for teacher input, trust, collaboration, innovation, and preparation.

The results were not unexpected, as those who responded were likely already proactive and supported educators. But, as Gruenert and Whitaker mention, the task of deciphering the data is not just looking at the highest or lowest percentages—it is also looking at the story the results elicit. It’s about starting a process of self-reflection and discussion around who owns each item. Is it the domain of teachers or school leaders?


The results of the survey, which used the Likert scale, show that the majority of respondents said they agree with the statements. The results can also serve as great discussion starters for each statement. Surveys like this provide a foot in the door for pertinent, purposeful dialogue to improve the culture of a school and improve both its efficiency and effectiveness. As Gruenert and Whitaker state, the real conversations start when you ask these follow-up questions: (modified from p. 76):

  • school cultureDo you feel that these results are accurate?
  • How did we get to this place?
  • Do we want to change? If so, how?
  • What do we want our school culture to look like in five years?
  • Is this culture achievable?
  • What first steps can we take to improve our school culture?

How does the leadership in your school measure up? Find out by taking the School Culture and Collaborative Leadership Survey, and then start a conversation with your colleagues.


Sean Slade is Senior Director of Global Outreach. During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being and has been at the forefront of promoting school climate, connectedness, resilience, and a youth development focus for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, educational researcher, senior education officer, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.