School culture is consistently described as one of the most impactful contributors to perceptions of a successful school. The culture of a school has far-reaching impacts on every aspect of the organization. Student achievement, teacher effectiveness, teacher retention, community support and student enrollment are all affected by the explicit and implicit cultural attributes of a school. Below are four foundational ways to create a positive school culture.
1) Teacher Leadership
Create a teacher leadership program that utilizes the strengths of your staff members for school improvement. Note teachers’ strengths and find creative ways to use those soft and hard skills as methods to elevating teachers and their roles in the school environment. Being intentional about teacher leadership opportunities is fundamental to creating a culture of growth and opportunity. As discussed by Harris (2003), opportunities that align with true distributive leadership (as opposed to delegated leadership) are most likely to result in a culture where teachers feel empowered and receptive to peer feedback. To accomplish this, leaders should allocate time and resources for training teacher leaders in how to effectively provide instructional coaching for colleagues. This type of training is an often-overlooked component of teacher leadership programs. However, as teachers learn how to effectively give and receive feedback, without emotional bias or interference, there are lasting, systemic effects creating a foundation for a positive school culture.
2) Student Opportunities
When focusing on school culture, student perceptions of the school can positively and negatively influence everything from student behavior to teacher motivation. To create a student-centered school culture, leaders can strategically create opportunities for student leadership and seek out unique ways to engage students in non-traditional roles. In one example from my years as a school principal, we utilized school data to create a service learning club that enhances students’ social skills at the same time. We recruited students who needed the boost in social skills and peer interactions, and we used a project-based service-learning opportunity as a context for social-emotional learning. The result was improved engagement in the school, increased self-reported social-emotional competence, improved social perception of these students by their peers and a genuine perception of school pride by those engaged and those they interacted with.
3) Professional Learning
In conjunction with teacher leadership, professional learning opportunities are a powerful way to boost school culture. To generate a culture of learning and growth for all, the teaching and learning of adults must be an integral part of the learning cycle in the school. Parent seminars, teacher training, student teacher partnerships and mentoring are all powerful examples of adult learning, which can model the learning cycle for students, as well as how to learn from mistakes. One specific idea for leaders is to give your Professional Learning Community meetings (PLCs) a reboot. DuFour and Eaker (2009) found that PLCs, when structured effectively, can be one of the most powerful forms of professional development. Leaders can create a specific structure for PLCs with a weekly focus on various aspects of teaching and learning. Use your log of teacher strengths to provide opportunities for teachers who are particularly skilled with upcoming PLC topics to serve as discussion leaders. This is a great way to integrate the teacher leadership program with professional learning.
4) Community Engagement
Go beyond traditional PTA activities and seek to engage members of the school community that are a diverse representation of skills, talents and activities. From creating a career day that celebrates community members to recruiting classroom volunteers from the community to asking parents to serve on an events committee, there are many ways to engage the school community. When leaders get the community involved, the culture of the school shifts to one of inclusive ownership. When leaders build strategic partnerships with community businesses and organizations, opportunities such as wrap-around services for students and families in need, financial support and volunteerism can benefit school culture. Community perception is the undercurrent for school marketing, school image and student enrollment, and these all have direct impacts on school culture.
Improving school culture is not a finite activity. Leaders do not complete a school culture activity, check the box and move on to something else. Every school has a culture – a way of doing, growing and believing – that is pervasive and perceptible. Ensuring that culture is a positive one involves an ongoing process of developing and utilizing talents, generating creative opportunities and establishing a clear focus on learning and growth for adults and students alike.
For more information or to collaborate around improving school culture, contact Jessica Bohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jessicabohn.com. Jessica Bohn is currently an Independent Consultant & Contractor and ASCD Faculty, who was a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader, has been published in Educational Leadership and previously led ASCD committees. Jessica has served as an award-winning Principal, District Director & Coordinator, Associate Director, Assistant Principal and Teacher in North Carolina.