School culture refers to the policies, interpersonal dynamics, attitudes, customs, and formal and informal rules of behavior within a school. School culture involves administrators, teachers, staff, and students. It has a tremendous impact on the functioning and effectiveness of the school.
In many ways, the informal rules of behavior and the interpersonal dynamics of a school are more important than the official policies.
Moreover, a school’s culture is affected by a wide range of factors such as the school’s history, the community it serves, education stakeholders, and the dynamic between staff.
Nevertheless, school leadership is often tasked with influencing, changing, and directing the school’s culture – and leadership can, indeed, affect the culture of the school.
Types of School Culture
According to Hargreaves (1995) there are several types of school culture, listed below.
1. Collaborative Culture
Teachers work together, share the same educational values, and are committed to improving their teaching and the school as a whole.
2. Comfortable-Collaborative Culture
The school atmosphere is professional and although teachers are aware of the efforts of their colleagues, there is not a great deal of professional reflection.
The tone of the school is determined by leadership, which supports teachers’ growth but on a superficial level which often undermines motivation.
The atmosphere is dominated by cliques of teachers that compete for resources and control. An “us versus them” attitude can develop between the teachers and administration.
Teachers all function independently and there is very little collaborative effort to improve the school. Meetings are uninspired and lack involvement of the staff.
How to set a Positive School Culture
1. Nurture High Expectations
School leadership sets the tone of high expectations. Instilling a drive and motivation for teachers to excel in the classroom involves creating a supportive environment.
This can be accomplished by highlighting best practices. Showing the entire teaching staff examples of outstanding instructional approaches can help motivate others on the team.
Holding award ceremonies and honoring teachers that are exceptionally dedicated to the profession not only shows respect for teachers as a group, but also helps the rewarded teachers feel appreciated.
This creates an atmosphere in the school that values the efforts of its teachers and recognizes their dedication.
2. Create Cohesion
Creating an environment where everyone feels respected and valued helps people feel part of the team.
This is accomplished by accepting and tolerating differences of opinion, differences in cultural backgrounds, and differences in pedagogical approaches.
Performance evaluations are handled in a positive manner and leadership focuses on identifying best practices rather than trying to find fault.
3. Maintain the Physical Environment
All people respond to the esthetics of their surroundings. Working in a visually pleasing environment puts teachers and students in a positive mood, which then effects nearly every aspect of the school day.
The exterior and interior environments should be clean and display a cheerful color scheme. Natural light and bright interiors foster positive attitudes.
Equipment that is broken should be repaired quickly and thoroughly.
4. Decentralized Decision-Making
Leadership should recognize the value of listening to experienced professionals. Great ideas can come from anyone.
Allowing teachers to have a say in decisions that impact their efforts will foster a sense of being listened to and respected.
This can be accomplished by forming committees that are tasked with making important decisions and implementing key action plans.
Those decisions should not be rejected by the administration to make it clear that teachers have a role in school operations.
5. Participate in Fun Activities
Teachers can feel a lot of pressure from parents, administrators, and society. Participating in school activities that are fun can help release a lot of tension and stress.
When colleagues engage in activities that are enjoyable, it helps build positive emotional bonds. This will make it easier for people to accept differences and foster greater collaboration in the future.
Students get to see their teachers from a different perspective, which will diminish negativity that has developed between both parties.
6. Let Students Know They Are Valued
Establishing a caring environment creates a sense of security in students that are at a fundamental level, just developing human beings. Youth and the teenage years can be full of personal doubt and struggles.
Letting students realize that the school genuinely cares about their growth is essential to creating a positive school culture. This can be accomplished through instructional approaches that are student-centered, interesting and practical.
Teachers should use a positive and respectful tone of voice when interacting with students and avoid punitive tactics to maintain discipline.
7. Professional Development
Providing teachers with the resources they need to excel is essential to creating a positive school culture.
There is nothing more frustrating for teachers than leadership having high expectations, but always saying no when teachers request specific training.
Knowledge is continuously evolving in every subject domain and technological applications to instruction emerge every year.
However, if teachers are not given time and the financial resources necessary to update their knowledge and skills, the entire school suffers, especially the students.
Examples of a Positive School Culture
- Teacher agency: At the beginning of each academic year, teachers get to choose which committees they want to work on.
- Teacher control over personal budget: Every teacher is allocated a portion of an “equipment and resources” budget which they can spend as they see fit.
- Open discussion: Staff meetings are characterized by a lot of free-flowing discussion among the teachers and administrators.
- Responsiveness: The maintenance department is quick to handle repairs of damaged equipment or classroom furniture.
- Student and parent participation: Students and parents get to offer suggestions regarding the lunch menu and are regularly asked their opinions about food quality and quantity.
- Relationship-building events: At least once a term, the school holds an outdoor barbecue on a weekend that involves a lot of fun activities and games.
- Teacher buy-in for professional development: Every teacher gets to design their own professional development plan at the beginning of each academic year.
- Teacher participation in strategic planning: Administrators and teachers devise a set of school-wide educational objectives and a detailed action plan to accomplish those goals.
- Teacher participation in events: Once a year, the school holds a talent show for administrators and parents to display their hidden talent.
- Teachers provide free and open feedback to leadership: At the end of each academic year, teachers respond to a job satisfaction survey that also includes a section for suggestions on how to improve the school.
Creating a positive school culture can produce numerous benefits for teachers, students, and administrators. Teachers approach their duties with greater enthusiasm and tend to have more positive interactions with their students and colleagues.
Administrators and teachers should work collaboratively towards a set of shared educational goals. Instead of feeling like competitors on opposing teams, they should see themselves as one team working towards one goal.
When students feel secure and cared for, it affects their behavior and academic performance. They form more positive emotional bonds with each other and their teachers, which reduces stress and interpersonal conflicts.
Giving teachers authority to make decisions regarding the school’s operation, nurturing PD, and highlighting best practices lets teachers know they are respected, trusted, and valued.
Establishing events and activities that have the sole purpose of being fun helps alleviate stress and interpersonal hostilities that may build up over time. In addition, creating a physical environment that is pleasing to the eye and includes lots of natural sunlight lifts everyone’s mood.
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Eaker, R., DuFour, R, Dufour, R (2002) Getting Started: Reculturing schools to Become Professional Learning Communities, Solution Tree, Bloomington (e-book).
Fullan, M., (2007) The new meaning of educational change. Routledge, New York.
Hargreaves, D. (1995). School culture, school effectiveness and school improvement, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 6(1), 23–46
Schein, E.H. (1985). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p. 6
Stoll, L. (1998). School culture. School Improvement Network’s Bulletin, 9. https://doi.org/10.18296/set.0805