Former teacher and principal Roland S. Barth describes school culture as “a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions, and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization. It is the historically transmitted pattern of meaning that wields astonishing power in shaping what people think and how they act.” The question is, who is the individual most responsible for creating and maintaining a strong school culture? According to Barth and others, the principal plays a significant role.
Creating a Strong and Positive School Culture
There is no formula to create and maintain a strong and positive school culture. It does not happen overnight or by mandate. However, there are some steps principals can take to begin the process and make healthy changes to the daily environment.
Assess the current culture. Unless a school is opening for the very first time with a whole new mix of faculty and staff, the culture of a school is the result of years of accepting “that’s the way it’s done here.” When a principal is ready to make changes, it is important to ask key questions and make detailed observations. For example: How are new teachers welcomed? Are they simply tolerated? How is discipline handled by teachers and administrators? How does the school include the community in events and decisions? How engaged are students in learning?
Determine what changes should be made. When planning for a healthy future, wise principals consult with students and staff to determine what changes can and should be made first. Considering the values of those most affected by change will help them engage in the changes more quickly and authentically.
Lead by example. Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing people; it is the only means.” Strong school culture develops slowly but effectively when school leadership sets the tone by example. A principal who expects respect, cooperation and acceptance must demonstrate each of those qualities on a consistent basis.
Everyone Benefits in a Positive Environment
The culture of a school, whether uplifting or harmful, affects students, staff and the community equally, although in different ways. In a study involving three high-performing high schools, educational consultant Shelly Habegger discovered what each principal did to effectively improve the culture of the school. The two issues having the biggest impact on students, staff and the community involved creating a sense of belonging and providing clear direction.
Students – The principals at all three schools involved in this study believe the most important goal for students does not directly relate to high test scores. Instead, they were committed to creating opportunities for their students to develop relationships with adults in the building who cared about them, providing the support systems students need to succeed academically.
Each principal also supported a healthy goal-oriented climate. Students and classes regularly set rigorous but reasonable goals to which everyone aspires and for which students, staff and leadership work together to attain.
Teachers – The relationships teachers formed with other teachers in each building brought a feeling of professionalism and empowerment. Principals created schedules that provided common plan time during which time they could review data, discuss concerns and design cohesive lesson plans.
Having specific, concrete and shared goals was also important to teachers on a building level. “Whether it was participating in book studies, exchanging journal articles, or conversing in the lunchroom or hallway, the teachers and principals constantly provided guidance and assistance to one another in achieving their professional goals and enhancing their practice.”
Family and Community – According to Habegger, “Each principal referred to the parent’s role (and community’s role) as complementary to the school.” Families and the communities surrounding these schools feel welcome all the time, not just for conferences and seasonal concerts. They are consulted on school issues and feel free to make suggestions or voice concerns as they arise.
Families were also aware of the goals set by the school, the classroom and their students, and they were contacted regularly by both teachers and building leadership to keep them up to date. They are encouraged to become more involved in their students’ education. By making regular contact with parents and sharing common goals, teachers build relationships in which both families and students feel heard.
Reforming School Culture
School culture has a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on everyone. Barth acknowledges that every school has a culture, with some schools being more hospitable than others, and some even being toxic: “A school’s culture can work for or against improvement and reform. Some schools are populated by teachers and administrators who are reformers, others by educators who are gifted and talented at subverting reform. And many school cultures are indifferent to reform.”
The Master of Education in Educational Administration from Lamar University prepares aspiring school leaders to “build diverse, inclusive learning communities of continuous improvement.” You will have the skills necessary to assess school culture and create a plan for success by building important relationships and setting goals in which all stakeholders can participate.
Learn more about Lamar University’s online M.Ed. in Educational Administration program.