What makes a great school? High educational standards and strong test scores might be common responses to that question, but these elements alone are not the overall arbiters of achievement. More often than not, school culture plays an overwhelming role. School culture is the beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that influence every aspect of a school. The importance of school culture goes deeper than rules and attitudes, however, touching on aspects as varied as diversity, student wellbeing, and even the order within classrooms and common areas. Being such a far-reaching concept, it falls upon every member of a school’s staff to help promote an enriching school culture. From the National Educational Association:

The whole village concept for improving schools stresses the importance of all school employees working together to help students succeed – everyone from principals, custodians and bus drivers to teachers, nurses, administrators, security and food service workers.

Perhaps most critical in driving school culture, though, is the leadership provided by a school’s principal and administrators. Through the policies they set and behaviors they exhibit, these school leaders send both direct and indirect messages that touch every corner of the institutions they oversee.

Why School Culture is Important

While it might be tempting to dismiss the notion of school culture as too nebulous, particularly when test scores and student-teacher ratios are prioritized as signs of achievement, the truth is that improved school culture contributes to greater school success. Broadly speaking, when school culture is strong, teachers and students have a greater incentive to strive for their maximum potential. This is because their satisfaction, morale, and fulfillment all grow as school culture blossoms.

Strong school culture breeds dedicated teachers. With the encouragement provided by a healthy school, teachers are more likely to prioritize their professional development and aptitude by improving their skills, expanding their base of knowledge, and connecting with their students. Motivated teachers are more apt to tailor their approaches to students’ individualized learning needs (where possible), better prepared to guide their students toward excellence, and more willing to praise their students for a job well-done.

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In turn, the positive relationship between students and teachers is likely to grow. When students know that teachers and staff care, that they will celebrate their achievements, provide constructive criticism when they fall short of a goal, and work tirelessly to promote the best interests of the student population, students will have a desire to show up and do their best. Students in a strong school culture understand that there is pressure to succeed, but also acknowledge the pressure is positive and know that the school is there to support them in rising to any academic challenge. The list of benefits that a strong school culture can provide continues:

  • In a healthy environment, the professional relationships between a school’s staff can become more congenial and productive.
  • With collaborative input from all parties on major school decisions, a wider range of views becomes represented.
  • Opportunities are more evenly distributed among the student population, increasing the likelihood that disadvantaged students have a chance to succeed.

Most importantly, though, the positive attitudes and behaviors exhibited by school leaders and administrators become infectious, filtering down to staff and students alike and improving the wellbeing of all.

Developing Positive School Culture

A positive school culture is preferable to a negative one. Fostering one means focusing on the connections between school staff and students, along with the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of school administrators. In an article on school leadership, Kyle Wagner, a former educator and founder of Transform Educational Consulting, laid out five pivotal strategies for building effective school culture, which are:

  1. Planning a bridge program for new students and staff. Administrators should start by introducing a school’s newcomers to the institution’s ethos and expectations as soon as possible. This allows them to make an easy transition and fit in with the school culture.
  2. Making school-wide goals visible. By making the school’s mission and goals publicly accessible (as opposed to tucked away in a back office), the entire school can understand and share in a similar purpose and work toward it collaboratively.
  3. Keeping a loyal opposition. Through inviting constructive criticism, multiple viewpoints are expressed, and school leaders can address deficiencies in their proposed policies.
  4. Establishing collaborative networks. Seeking the aid of outside experts can help provide a neutral point of view on a school’s challenges and introduce objective solutions for improving school culture. The viewpoint of a trusted third-party can sometimes offer a perspective no faction within the school could have conceived.
  5. Holding school-wide rallies and assemblies. Daily gatherings of a school’s staff and student body help further instill the idea that the school is a unit working toward shared goals, and it offers an opportunity to build positivity through celebrating achievements and laying out expectations.

Of course, these aren’t the only methods administrators can use to help improve their school culture. Additional sources, such as School Leaders Now’s 8 Ways Principals Can Build Positive School Culture Now offers substantive advice on what administrators can do to start shifting their school’s sense of community in the right direction.

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