Cultivating a Positive School Culture
Written by: Chrystal Street, Principal of Brownstown Elementary School
When you walk into Mediocre Intermediate to enroll a 5th grader, you are welcomed. The friendly secretary hands you the paperwork and tells you to bring it back when it is completed. She then starts to finish a personal conversation that she was having with a teacher before you have even turned around to leave. An assistant principal walks by you without acknowledging your presence or your child. In Pleasantville Middle School, you show up to enroll your oldest child. The secretary immediately stops talking with a staff member and entirely focuses her attention on you. She gives you the paperwork and offers to walk you through each page. Your son is being engaged in conversation from the assistant principal who is asking him if he enjoys any sports or clubs.
Both schools are in the same district, but the vibe that you get in each building is a complete 180. How you are treated could be different if you had entered a few days later. This change would be the result of the climate. Unfortunately, if the treatment from staff members has always been the same, the issue could be within the culture.
Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker describe the difference between school climate and culture in their book, School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Climate is the school’s attitude and could change on a daily basis depending on a situation. A school’s personality is it’s culture (p. 11). The culture is what “we do around here” and is based on values and beliefs (p. 10).
Changing the personality of a school, especially if there are pockets of toxicity, will be a continual work in progress. Changing a toxic culture into one that is positive takes a great deal of time, energy, and persistence, but it can be done. As the administrator, there are a number of things that you can do to cultivate a positive culture in your building where staff members all unite to support the school’s vision.
Build Relationships: Relationships are key. This takes time. From the moment that you are hired, you need to continually work on relationship building. Get to know your staff by asking them about their family, what they like to do, and how they spend their vacation time. Follow up with them if they are going through hard times. Be there to listen and offer support or encouragement. Make sure every employee knows that his or her work is important.
Assess the School Culture: All of us would like to think that we have the most positive school culture on the planet, but after gathering input, we could find that our interpretations were a bit off. Consider using a survey with your staff to find out the type of culture within the building. After the survey, share the results with the staff and celebrate the positives and look for ways to improve areas. If you have a good relationship with your staff, you can trust them to give you honest feedback on areas that need the most improvement. You do not need to focus on improving every weakness at once. Pick one area and work together to improve. It is important to garner suggestions from staff, create an action plan, and re-evaluate.
In the book, School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, a School Culture Survey is included in chapter 6 to help you get started. Areas of the survey include collaborative leadership, teacher collaboration, professional development, unity of purpose, collegial support, and learning partnership. Details on how to score the survey are covered and this might be just what you need to get a jump start on the beliefs and attitudes that exist in your building. A sample of the survey can be found online.
Model: As a building leader, it is imperative that you set the tone, not just at the beginning of every year, but each and every single day. Your behavior, actions, and feelings about everything is being watched by each person you see and meet. How you overcome difficult situations, talk to people, and show your presence will impact those that work around you.
Even though the culture of a building is not set through one individual, one person can make a difference in how the culture will evolve. If your tone is sarcastic or your overall state of mind is that school is a place where problems continually exist, that attitude will spill over into the people that work for you. If you are not setting the tone with expectations, someone else will which could spiral downward very quickly. Be that person who looks for the positive even when times or situations are difficult.
Be Accessible and Visible: Teachers and students want to know that you care and one way to do that is to be seen. It might be easy to get busy and stuck in the office, but make the effort to get out from behind your desk to chat with people. When going to the cafeteria for lunch duty, grab the broom, sweep the floor, and talk to students as they are putting their trash away. One small act signifies that we are all in this together. Don’t forget to visit with the cleaning crew who stays late.
Collaborate: Planning time for teachers to collaborate goes a long way for teachers, especially if time can be planned during the school day. PLC time is a great opportunity for teachers to discuss instructional practices. Encourage teachers to observe each other by offering to cover their classroom.
Plan opportunities for instructional aides and support staff to collaborate. Is there a time that they can get together to discuss how different recess situations are handled or other issues that may arise when working with students or teachers? Consider planning professional learning opportunities for them as well.
Celebrate and Have Fun: There should always be time for celebration. Often, administrators think about the kids and have a number of ceremonies that showcase students, but what about the teachers? Do you recognize teachers or other employees for years of service? Are there things that you are doing that highlight the work that they are doing? Handwritten, individual notes for staff members go a long way. Maybe you could even write a note to the employee’s spouse or parents. A simple, verbal ‘thank you’ or ‘great job’ might be just what the staff needs to get through a stressful day.
At Brownstown Elementary, we do a number of things for the adults. Staff love the Treat Trolley which is simply a cart loaded with different goodies that is wheeled to each employee. One time the Treat Trolley might have snacks on it or a jeans pass. The Girl Scouts donated enough cookies for the entire staff which was a hit. Teachers were surprised when they were able to take the entire box! We also celebrate March Madness by having daily basketball activities for a week in which staff get to participate. The week ends with administration providing lunch that includes nothing but concession type food such as nachos, hot dogs, soda, popcorn, and bubblegum. Planning time for fun and celebrations shows that you are committed to going the extra mile to acknowledge hard work and will boost morale.
Don’t Forget to Reflect: Remember to take time to reflect on the culture in your building. Ask your staff how they feel about how things are going. Listen to parents and what the students have to say. Be aware of what is going on and include staff in decisions that might change the culture.
A change in your school culture starts with you. You can use one or two of the strategies listed or you might have some even better strategies. Changing your culture or just making it better will not happen quickly, however, having a positive school culture will improve the academic performance of students and unite the staff in building the best possible environment for learning. What can you do to continue to promote a positive culture in your building?
Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.