Building a Strong School Culture

With foresight, intentional action, and reflection, principals can shape the shared values of their school

September 9, 2018
small blue schoolhouse in child's hand, cupped by adult hand

Building from an understanding of what makes a good school culture, the next question a leader will ask is, How do I get started in this work? With connections and consistent messaging in mind, principals have a unique power to shape their school’s culture. Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, an expert in education leadership and management, has articulated six areas of focus for principals — guidelines that can support you as you try to sustain, or change, the culture in your building. 

Six Steps to Shaping a School’s Culture

  1. Look in the mirror. The leader is the main role model for an organization. Everything a leader does — her statements and philosophy, reactions to key events, energy and interaction style — influences culture in a powerful way. If you want a collaborative staff, ask colleagues for advice early and often. If you want teachers to hold students to high expectations, reaffirm your own belief not only in young people but also in your staff.
  2. Select staff wisely. The teachers and administrators you hire will enter your school with their own beliefs about education and expectations about what it will be like to work at your school. When hiring and mentoring, ask questions that help reveal whether those beliefs and expectations align with the ones you want your school community to hold. Those beliefs and norms will only grow stronger in a tight-knit community.
  3. Teach what you’d like to see. Create formal trainings and space for honest conversation about the attitudes, norms, and practices that are core to being a member of your school community. Use those trainings and other professional development to model the beliefs and behaviors you desire. Offer rewards (praise, written notes, community celebrations) for students and staff when they demonstrate those behaviors.
  4. Broadcast your vision. Every formal communication you have with your community should reflect and reinforce the culture. In every memo to staff, letter to parents, or address to students, make sure to:
    • highlight the future and what your school has the potential to achieve;
    • use data and facts to reduce ambiguity about your vision;
    • appeal to people’s emotions, values, and the deeper needs that motivate them;
    • stay positive, grateful, and idealistic, which is an important counterweight to any negative messages students or staff might receive;
    • use collective statements (“we are,” “we will”) to increase a feeling of belonging and collective identity.
  5. Make your vision tangible. Mottos, symbolic objects, special traditions, and the design of physical space can all help reinforce your cultural vision, especially when the meaning of these tangible artifacts is consistently communicated. For example, regular celebrations of student and staff success is a reminder of what’s important. It also inspires continued commitment to shared values.
  6. Restructure social networks. Culture is spread through connections. So figure out which people or groups are isolated from the community and figure out how to encourage greater interaction with others who are committed to the school culture. This way, everyone – not only you – helps your positive message spread more quickly and clearly.
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Everything a leader does — her statements and philosophy, reactions to key events, energy, and interaction style — influences culture in a powerful way.

Questions Every School Leader Can Ask

As a leader, ask yourself: What fundamental beliefs do you want community members to hold about the work they do?

As a leader, ask yourself: What do you want community members to value as being right or wrong,  good or bad, just or unjust about the work they do?

As a leader, ask yourself: What expectation should everyone have about the appropriate or desirable way of operating; what agreed upon rules should guide behavior?

As a leader, ask yourself: What actions and attitudes do you expect to consistently observe?

As a leader, ask yourself: What will be the tangible evidence of beliefs, assumptions, values, norms, and behaviors?

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K-12 School Leadership