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School culture is more than how it feels when you walk through the school door

course correction 21st century skills

Your first impressions as you walk into a school provides an important entree into that school’s atmosphere.

In my many travels across the country and my work as a school leader, I’ve learned that how you are first greeted and treated as you enter the school building is vital to the feelings you develop about that school.   

You may–hopefully–have a reaction like this:

“This school seems so friendly and people really like their work. Everyone has lots of energy and are respectful of each other and their students.”

Or you may–unfortunately–have an opposite encounter:

“No one acknowledged that I was even here. Everyone appeared in bad moods. They were really put off and bothered when I asked a question.”

Knowing how adults and students feel when in your organization’s environment is mission critical. But, first reactions are not enough to understand and change the culture of your school. It takes innovative and forward-thinking leadership.

Rethinking culture

Ehrhart and Schneider describe organizational culture as “closely aligning the values and beliefs that manifest themselves in almost all aspects of organizational life, and which ultimately make the organization unique.”  More simply, David Wilkerson explains that culture “is how we do things around here. Things that are shared such as beliefs, values, norms for behaviors, routines, sense making, and perspectives.”

For school leaders, placing a primary focus on school culture has typically not been on the forefront of their improvement efforts–most likely due to it’s invisible nature. The primary focus has been more tangible improvement strategies designed to meet the performance requirements of the Federal No Child left Behind Act (NCLB).

Efforts to improve teaching and learning often included a focus on a school’s vision and mission, professional learning, adequate resources, formative and summative assessments, and a defined curriculum. All added an element of improvement but, independently, they have not been enough to transform schools in the way we all envision.

Leaders can make significant headway to improve their schools by taking advantage of the power of their school’s culture.

Getting staff on board

The critical work in schools is a human endeavour and the potential to improve them comes from those who work there. The collective impact on improvement strategies are better realized in their totality when valued and embraced by those who enact them.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal contends that the leadership which has the greatest impact focuses on improving teamwork, raising morale, improving job satisfaction, while relieving work stress for employees.

For leaders, identifying and defining the needs of teachers and staff in the work space is a critical first step in creating a healthy culture.

In its latest report, The Learning Policy Institute finds that teachers who become disenfranchised with teaching often cite a lack of quality school leadership, professional learning opportunities, instructional leadership, time for collaboration, planning, collegial relationships, and decision-making input.

Moving forward, leaders will need to make school culture a priority in their school improvement efforts and not a “nice-to-have.” When the attributes of school culture are defined, monitored, and supported, school leaders will be better positioned to effectively keep teachers from leaving, implementing school improvement strategies, and changing the culture from one of emotion and reaction to one of action and ownership.

With this in mind, how can leaders make school culture a priority?

  1. Create opportunities to talk about norms and system values.
  2. Model the behaviors that reflect the school’s norms and values.
  3. Constantly connect initiatives and actions to the school’s direction.
  4. Create continuous input systems to have a “pulse” on teachers and staff opinions and involvement.
  5. Establish systems where teachers and staff are engaged in decision-making and have ownership of solutions.
  6. Create social networks to be inclusive of the diversity within the system.
  7. Value the personal and professional needs of everyone.

Leading to create a positive school environment is about more than the front door first impressions. Leading to develop a positive school culture and climate needs to be deliberately planned, measured, and supported.

For more insight into the emerging role of leaders, read The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate All ChildrenDr. Philip D. Lanoue and Dr. Sally J. Zepeda’s goal in writing this book published by Rowman & Littlefield, and as a joint publication with AASA, is to engage superintendents and leaders by asking different questions about their roles in leading schools and communities.          

About the Author

Dr. Philip D. Lanoue
Dr. Philip D. Lanoue is a nationally renowned education leader. He is the co-author of the new book The Emerging Work of Today’s Superintendent: Leading Schools and Communities to Educate all Children and the 2015 AASA National Superintendent of the Year. For more about Dr. Lanoue visit https://pdlconsultants.com.

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