School Culture: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

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Originally published on the Innovators in Education blog

As a school leader, you know you need to be thinking about school culture. But what is it? It’s easier described than defined. What everyone can describe is how critical school culture is to a school’s success. All too often, the magnitude of school culture is taken for granted and schools suffer. The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions.

The preservation or building of culture needs to be the job of every person in the organization, but it has to start with leadership.

There is an enormous amount of thought, planning, and energy that goes into maintaining the culture of a school. The school you lead needs you to champion this work and then guide them on the journey. This work can be difficult because it requires people who work within the school to compromise. In Anthony Muhammad’s book “Transforming School Culture,” he describes a type of teacher called a fundamentalist. Muhammad explains that fundamentalists are educators who are comfortable with status quo and they organize and work against any viable form of change. This is why having unity around the vision of the school is so vital to a powerful school culture!

Many experts point to Covey’s “win-win” philosophy as the answer, but I don’t buy it. In the field of education, there is only one option: PUT KIDS FIRST. In order to keep on the high side of school culture, everyone has to agree to put kids first. Once each adult knows that they may have to accept some personal compromise, you will be on track to improving your culture for your students

Here are some ways to foster a strong school culture:

Vision

This work begins with the leader bringing everyone together to create and cement your unity of purpose. There is a point in the movie “Here Comes the Boom” where Mr. Voss (Kevin James) is teaching about the potential that cells have when they work together to heal the system, but it only happens when the cells are working in rhythm. This applies to our work as school leaders. Once your team is able to put students first, you can set your vision for success. Your vision should be a description of what success looks like. It does not require your organization to rewrite you actual mission and vision statements, it requires your team to agree on what you want to accomplish during that school year or as a long-term goal.

Take Stock

Once you’ve shared your vision with all stakeholders, your leadership team needs to take stock of the current reality. Where are you compared to where you want to be? When you examine your current reality and compare it to your desired outcome, there will be gaps. Find ways to bridge those gaps and prioritize building bridges. Take time to develop strategies and the objective at hand. Is the gap academic? Study evidence-based tools and models that are proven to boost academic outcomes. How can your team think outside the box to accomplish something in a different way? Your commitment to your vision will be evident in the solutions you prioritize. Taking stock also requires that you consider the history of your school. When you understand where your school is coming from, it is easier to build the roadmap that will get you to where you want to be.

Structure the Work

As your team addresses priority areas, you’ll find there is too much work for any one person. Spread the workload out among your stakeholders. This reduces the burden and helps everyone remain focused on your vision. Organize your stakeholders into groups that can work together and cooperate to achieve more. Once these groups begin their work, set up checkpoints along the way to keep track of progress. Schedule times for all groups to assemble and provide updates.

Communication

Communication is the piece that will keep the work moving in the right direction. As the leader, our key to avoiding confusion and underperformance is our ability to communicate the desired outcome and the strategies that will get us to our vision. Our communication needs to be based on trust. According to Stephen Covey, trust has two parts; character and competence. This is why it is so important that our words match our actions. So communicate progress then celebrate accomplishments. You also have a greater chance of remaining aligned with your vision when the communication involves both speaking and listening. The listening is a powerful part that is often overlooked. We often receive feedback, but (sometimes defensively) dismiss it. That feedback is a powerful part of accomplishing what you set out to do. If feedback is dismissed, then the group stops providing feedback and that is a sign of an even larger culture problem.

Finish Strong

School culture is not a one and done method. You and your stakeholders need to work diligently all year long. Change can be slow and people resistant. Do not lose heart! With laser-like focus and a team with a common vision, you will create a powerful culture for your students, their families, and your staff.

Chris is passionate about school culture and speaks on this topic often. He most recently presented a webinar on school culture. You can view it HERE.

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