Secrets of School Culture
As school leaders, we understand that one of our most important responsibilities is building school culture. We want to lead a school where kids enjoy learning and adults enjoy working. We want to lead a school where teacher capacity is enhanced and student achievement is elevated. We want to foster a school culture that empowers educators and inspires kids. So how do we do that?
Here are my 7 secrets for building a strong school culture:
- Connect with your values
It’s easy to get into a routine. We go to work everyday; we teach lessons; we lead faculty meetings; we email parents; we supervise carpool … and the list goes on. We make a million decisions every day, and many of them, we’re barely aware of. We get bogged down in the minutia and the mundane, so we need to continually remind ourselves why we do what we do. At our school, we have each written our own professional oath — modeled after the physician’s “Hippocratic Oath.” These oaths are posted on our websites and outside our classrooms. They keep us connected to our core values, and they remind us why we come to work each day.
- Identify your vision
Zig Ziglar said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” It’s important for every school to have a vision that drives the faculty — a goal that propels the school forward. We understand the importance of “learning targets” for students because we know that when kids understand the destination, they can own the journey. Adults are no different. The vision provides the goal around which everyone rallies.
- Cultivate the collaboration
I believe teachers are stronger when they collaborate. “Iron sharpens iron,” “two heads are better than one,” and that sort of thing. The term, “collaboration” has actually become something of a cliche. But in my experience, this cliche is rock solid. At our school, we have started a competition called, “Collaboration Bling,” where teachers are recognized for observing each other’s classrooms. We have conducted a faculty meeting via “Twitter chat,” and our last faculty meeting was conducted “Edcamp” style. The best professional learning does not take place in a workshop, it takes place when teachers are hanging out with their colleague down the hall.
- Raise the expectations
There is a robust body of research around the role of high expectations in school. The conclusion is clear. Kids rise to the level of our expectations. In our school we talk about expectations during morning announcements. I have gone into classrooms prior to testing to talk to the kids about my expectations for their academic growth. We also encourage students to have high expectations of themselves, so students set their own academic goals in conferences with their teachers. We don’t limit our hopes to the realm of academics, however, because we also asked all our students to write their dreams on our “Wall of Dreams” in the hallway.
- Personalize the data
I’ve told my teachers many times: “We don’t want to get better by accident; we want to get better on purpose. Data is what allows us to be strategic.” I am proud of how my teachers use the data to drive their instruction and increase their effectiveness in the classroom … but it is my hope that they never lose sight of this: ultimately, it’s not about the data; it’s about the kids. We did not get into education to raise test scores; we became educators to make a difference in the lives of our students. It is easy to be bogged down in the numbers, but we must remind ourselves that we are not analyzing “data points” … we are talking about children. Analyzing the data is useful, but we must never lose sight of what that data represents.
- Engage with the students and teachers
People know what you value by how you spend your time. I believe that the best school leaders are not consumed with managing programs, they’re preoccupied with people. They are passionate about connecting with the students and the teachers in the building. School culture is not built through emails and memos; it is built through relationships — one conversation at a time. You don’t shape school culture sitting behind your desk; you shape it in the halls, in the classrooms, the lunchrooms … doing whatever it takes to engage with those around you.
- Bring the positive energy
Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” And as Todd Whitaker quipped, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold.” Without a doubt, the leader of the school sets the tone in the building. The enthusiasm that we bring to work every day will be contagious. And the positive energy that we inject into the little moments of the day will make a big difference. A positive school culture is not built overnight, and it is not the result of a single program or initiative. It is achieved by taking advantage of the little opportunities to make a difference and elevate the positive energy in the school.
Good School culture is not accidental; it is the result of intentional decisions. The seven strategies listed above are all VERBS. They are things that we can all choose to DO! Every school can have a culture that rocks! It’s a matter of choices.
Danny Steele is in his 24th year of public education, and the 2016-2017 school year will mark his third year as the principal of Thompson Sixth Grade Center in the Alabaster City School System. He is also a husband and dad! Read more by Danny.
Tags: Collaboration, Educational Leadership, Values