Why School Culture Matters and Strategies to Improve It

school culture
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Why School Culture Matters

I recently read a quote by Dr. Joseph Murphy, Associate Dean at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, which really spoke to me. He said, “Seeds of change will never grow in toxic soil. School culture matters.” This message has stuck with me for the past several weeks as I have reflected on the past school year and look to move forward towards the next. 

As I examined the issue of school culture, I wondered how one would define it.

Over the past few weeks, I have formulated my own definition. School culture includes an atmosphere of mutual respect amongst all stakeholders where teaching and learning are valued; achievements and successes are celebrated, and where ongoing collaboration is the norm.   

Dr. Murphy is 100% correct in both of his assertions. First, school culture does matter.  When all stakeholders have the same goals and are on the same page, a school will flourish.  Unfortunately, toxic soil can keep those seeds from growing and in some cases create virtually irreparable damage.  Because of this school leaders must ensure that creating a healthy school culture is a priority.  Building a positive school culture starts with leadership. Leaders must be hands-on, willing to make personal sacrifices, and should work with people rather than working against them if they want to improve school culture. 

School culture is a mindset that can either be positive or negative.

No one flourishes in constant negativity.  When negativity persists in a school culture, no one wants to come to school. This includes the administrators, teachers, and students. This type of environment is set up to fail. Individuals are just going through the motions trying to get through another week and eventually another year.

No one prospers in this type of environment. It is not healthy, and educators should do everything they can to ensure that they never allow this mindset to creep in.

When positivity persists in a school culture, everyone thrives. Administrators, teachers, and students are generally happy to be there. Amazing things happen in a positive environment.  Student learning is enhanced. Teachers grow and improve. Administrators are more relaxed.  Everyone benefits from this type of environment.

School culture does matter. It should not be discounted. Over the past few weeks as I have reflected on this, I have come to believe that it may be the single most important factor for school success. If no one wants to be there, then ultimately a school will not be successful. However, if a positive, supporting school culture exists then the sky is the limit for how successful a school can be.

Now that we understand the importance of school culture, we must ask how to improve it. Fostering a positive school culture takes a lot of time and hard work.  It will not happen overnight. It is a difficult process that will likely come with immense growing pains.  Tough decisions will have to be made. This includes personnel decisions with those unwilling to buy into a change in school culture.

Those who resist these changes are the “toxic soil” and until they are gone, the “seeds of change” will never firmly take hold.

Strategies to Improve School Culture

The following seven broad strategies can help guide the process of improving school culture. These strategies are written under the assumption that a leader is in place which seeks to change the culture of a school and is willing to work hard. It is important to note that many of these strategies will require modifications along the way. Every school has its own unique challenges and as such there is no perfect blueprint for refining school culture.  These general strategies are not the end all be all solution, but they can aid in the development of a positive school culture.

  1. Create a team consisting of administrators, teachers, parents, and students to help shape changes to school culture. This team should develop a prioritized list of issues they believe harm to the overall school culture. In addition, they should brainstorm possible solutions for fixing those issues. Eventually, they should create a plan as well as a timeline for implementing the plan for turning around the school culture.

  1. Administrators must surround themselves with like-minded teachers who fit the mission and vision the team has in place for establishing an effective school culture.  These teachers must be trustworthy professionals who will do their job and make positive contributions to the school environment.

  2. It is important for teachers feel supported. Teachers who feel like their administrators have their backs are generally happy teachers, and they are more likely to operate a productive classroom.  Teachers should never question whether or not they are appreciated.  Building and maintaining teacher morale is one of the most important duties a school principal plays in fostering a positive school culture.  Teaching is a very difficult job, but it becomes easier when you work with a supportive administrator.

  3. Students spend the largest amount of their time at school in the classroom. This makes teachers the most responsible for creating a positive school culture.  Teachers help this process through a variety of ways. First, they build trusting relationships with students. Next, they ensure that every student has an opportunity to learn the required material. Additionally, they figure out a way to make learning fun so that students keep wanting to come back to their class. Finally, they show a vested interest in each student in a variety of ways including attending extracurricular activities, engaging in conversations about interests/hobbies, and being there for a student when they are having a hard time.

  1. Collaboration is critical to developing a positive school culture.  Collaboration enriches the overall teaching and learning experience. Collaboration builds lasting relationships. Collaboration can challenge us and make us better. Collaboration is essential in helping a school truly become a community of learners. Collaboration must be ongoing between every stakeholder within the school. Everyone should have a voice.

  2. To establish an effective school culture, you must consider every little nuance in a school. Ultimately, everything contributes to the overall culture of a school. This includes school security, the quality of the food in the cafeteria, the friendliness of the main office staff when there are visitors or when answering the phones, the cleanliness of the school, the maintenance of the grounds, etc.  Everything should be evaluated and changed as necessary.

  3. Extra-curricular programs can foster an immense amount of school pride.  Schools must offer a well-balanced assortment of programs to give every student an opportunity to be involved.  This includes a mixture of both athletic and non-athletic programs.  Coaches and sponsors responsible for these programs must provide the participants with everyone opportunity to be successful Programs and individuals within these programs should be recognized for their accomplishments.  Ultimately, if you have a positive school culture, every stakeholder feels a sense of pride when one of these programs or individuals is successful.