As soon as you walk into a school, spidey senses are triggered. It’s fairly easy to get a read of a school’s culture in those first few steps. School culture is a loaded concept. When we speak of school culture, EdGlossary (2013) defines it as “written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions”.
“Every aspect” of school culture will include aspects such as its beliefs and values, language and relationships, diversity and space. These layers of school culture in themselves are also complex and take time and strategic planning to ensure that they all make a beautiful collage of positive school culture. Let’s look into each of these aspects a little closer.
Shared beliefs held by staff and students will be evident in their actions and will impact the school culture. Beliefs about why students learn the way they do, why staff need what they need to meet the needs of all students, beliefs about how students learn, how teachers facilitate learning, and how all members of the school community will interact together, create a strong foundation for a positive school culture. Spending time developing the school’s understanding of beliefs, living the beliefs and reflecting on them together enhance the depth of the school’s culture.
When people hold common beliefs, their values become evident. When students value learning in open-ended opportunities, the school culture is representative of positive learning habits. When staff members value other staff members, parents and students, learning opportunities are rich and meaningful. When parents value the school’s approach to supporting their children, school culture is magnetic. It’s a commitment from all parties to want to join together in developing an environment that is the right place for everyone.
A positive school culture is representative of the common language used, exemplifying the beliefs, values, strength in relationships and respect for diversity in the community. Words such as tolerance, empathy, diversity and respect are not only spoken, but acted out with authenticity. Staff use language of support with each other and ask thought-provoking questioning techniques with their students. Students are using language of curiosity for knowledge and caring in their interactions. There are natural conversations around learning throughout the building.
Relationships are key which is not a surprise or secret. Get to know each other, everyone. Planning events and opportunities into calendar for people of the school community to socialize is more important than is generally realized. This provides a chance for people to build networks, learn about skill sets and areas of interest which is useful in developing the strength in the community. Building trusting relationships and sharing responsibilities with other staff and students elevates the number of voices heard. Opening space for voice in decision making and allowing idea makers to share their thinking creates an environment in which people want to take action.
The first thing people see when they walk in a school, is the actual space. When the community cares for the physical environment by keeping it clean, organized, display student work and post information for upcoming events, it sends the message that the school is thriving. Taking pride in the space in which people gather everyday to learn together speaks volumes about the values and the beliefs of the school culture.
Sharing and celebrating differences in learning styles, culture, and background enable a development in an inclusive and globally competent school culture. Displaying artifacts in the physical space to show the pride the community has in diversity of its constituents shows a beliefs that all members of the community are important and have much to offer. Multiple and varying types of opportunities for any member of the school community to share their thinking and learning celebrates diversity and opens that door to important skill development.
The time spent investing in the culture of the school is an investment in the daily lives of the people in the school community. Creating a positive culture allows for a safe and engaging environment for everyone to learn and grow in, and ensures that everyone is content to be a part of the community each day.
Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman is an international educator who has taught in Singapore, the United States and Canada, and is an active member of ASCD Emerging Leaders. She currently resides in Singapore and most recently she taught at ISS International School Singapore. Her previous roles include Pre-K Instructional Coordinator, and elementary teacher/teacher leader with the New York City Department of Education.