“But John, you left out the key piece of ANY school! The children- doesn’t the ‘C’ stand for children?”
Actually, if you look at the three pieces carefully, you will see that they are all in support of children/students. Think of a three-legged stool- the three legs are required to support the seat. If one piece is missing, the stool will fall over!
Culture is a loaded word, really. When talking about culture in relation to a school system, I get many different responses, ranging from how an individual “feels” in the building to faculty/staff/student morale. And, while I don’t believe any of them are “wrong”, I do think that there needs to be a consensus on what it is going to mean for the sake of our discussion. For our purposes here today, we are going to define culture as “the attitudes, beliefs, traditions, and actions which are foundational in a school system and also create feelings of being supported and successful”.
One might wonder how a school culture can have such a strong impact on student achievement. Consider the following stories about Billy and James:
Billy, a 5th grader, attends an elementary school each day. When he enters the building, he is greeted by his teacher Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones dresses in professional dress, appropriate for an elementary school. She understands how important it is to not come off as to casual or laid back in appearance. In the hallways, on the playground, and in class he understands that there are rules that must be followed. Despite several kids who will sometimes tease him, Billy enjoys playing outside. Billy also sees his teachers visiting in the hallways, and enjoys having the principal come to his classroom and also visiting on the playground and in the lunchroom. Billy’s parents enjoy attending parent conferences. They know that they are welcome to ask questions about the curriculum and Billy’s learning and behavior. Any issues are addressed and success praised. Billy feels safe at school and knows that he can succeed.
Contrast that with our story of James:
James, a 5th grader attends a different elementary school in the same part of town. The socioeconomic statuses and student populations are comparable. James comes to school most days. His teacher, Mrs. Williams, props the door open so the students can enter when the bell rings and take their seats. Mrs. Williams is usually late to class each day, and is always wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. The kids tend to treat her as “one of the gang” which leads to them being disrespectful more often than not. The hallways of the school are crazy- kids running up and down the hallways and teachers and staff yelling at students to behave. James rarely sees teachers talking or interacting at all, unless it is quietly whispering amongst each other regarding the latest problem student or teacher drama. Most of the time they stay in their own classrooms with their doors shut. As for the principal, the only time James gets to see the principal is when James is in trouble. As far as James’ parents are concerned, they rarely attend conferences because they tire of hearing about all the issues that the teacher feels James has without hearing much praise or ideas to help them support him better. James doesn’t really like school and looks for any excuse to miss it.
What is different about James’ and Billy’s schools? How do those differences affect the culture of each school? I am certain we have taught in or led schools just like those that James and Billy attend. If not, we most certainly have heard stories of such schools. Their cultures have been determined by their leaders. One is supportive and uplifting, the other self-serving and destructive.
“But John, it’s just the way we have done things. Change is hard, and my teachers are already overloaded with state and local mandates. They don’t have time for all this ‘feelings’ stuff.”
Change (which I debated about having as the C in the TLC for quite sometime) is HARD! A school culture isn’t built in a day (Don’t feel bad, neither was Rome!). But, you can change your school culture STARTING today! It will be a process, a little change here, a little change there.
“But John, our school has a great culture and we are good to go. Thanks though!”
AWESOME! You are one lucky (and probably actively involved) leader! HOWEVER- we can always strengthen and improve the quality of our school culture! It’s time to focus on that Principal C in TLC.
Let’s talk about some great ways to get started! Print out the Principal TLC Organizer shown below (click on the picture to get the PDF file) and get ready build or strengthen your school culture!
Well…how was it? Did you find anything in your reflection that was eye-opening or revealing? I know I sure did (and do each time I evaluate the current culture). If not, my guess is that you already knew about the areas that were strengths and areas that you wanted to focus on. So….what’s next? Great question!
Okay, now that you have pondered on and evaluated your school’s culture, you have probably found a thing or two that might be easily changed or added to improve your school’s culture. Even if you have a few ideas in mind, before you start filling out the second part of the the Principal TLC Culture Organizer, let’s talk about some quick and simple solutions to help improve school culture.
If not, let’s talk about a couple of ideas that are easy to implement and bring a quick positive boost to the culture of your school. Apply that Principal TLC in the following ways:
- Teacher recognition– whether it is just a simple note on a desk stating the good things that you are noticing, or a formal faculty meeting praising, this will go miles to strengthen the culture of your school. When teachers feel appreciated and supported, they tend to work harder than ever to better support their students.
- School-wide policies that provide for order during school hours- At our school, we strengthened several rules pertaining to behavior in the hallways and on the playground. This came after a school-wide discussion on what could be done to improve hallway behavior. So, not only did teachers have interest as their ideas were considered, but the changes were effective because they were changes that were needed and made sense.
- Physical changes and upgrades- Something as simple as updating some or all of the faculty room furniture, painting a hallway, adding new artwork, or surprising a teacher or two with a new needed piece of equipment goes miles in improving the culture of a school.
- Faculty socials and events- By hosting a luncheon or snack day(s) with your faculty and staff you can boost the morale which has a direct impact on the culture of the school. Once a year won’t change things, and once a week is TOO MUCH (at least in my opinion). But I love to find random holidays (like National Hot Chocolate Day) to celebrate. The spontaneity keeps it fun and prevents an expectation from developing.
- Student recognition- If you aren’t currently doing a student of the week or something similar, start now! It’s simple and provides a HUGE boost to school culture. Parents love to see students recognized and teachers enjoy having the chance to highlight deserving students (which don’t always have to be the high achievers).
Speaking of student recognition, at my school, I have also started doing positive office referrals. Yup, you read that right- POSITIVE office referrals. Students only ever came to see me when they were in trouble- and I didn’t like that. I wanted students to know that they were welcome for good reasons too. So I created positive office referral forms that my faculty and staff fill out and give to me. I then go to the classroom, call the students out of class, and take them to my office. I go over their positive referral with them, praise them, give them a high-five and a sucker, and send them back to class. BUT, we take it a step further at our school- we MAIL HOME THE REFERRAL so parents can celebrate with their student! It has been a SMASHING success! Making them was simple, but if you would rather save time and use mine, you can find them in my resource shop HERE (or click on the picture below). I give a lot more details on how it works along with 8 different versions of the form.
“But John, what you are saying sounds like school MORALE, not culture! I don’t really see the connection here.”
My dear friends- morale is PART of school culture. Culture is all the little pieces. I want to share our definition again with you: Culture is “the attitudes, beliefs, traditions, and actions which are foundational in a school system and also create feelings of being supported and successful”. If you start doing these morale boosters, and keep it up, it becomes part of the culture that teachers are recognized. It becomes the norm for students to be called to the principal’s office for a positive experience and acknowledgement! It becomes commonplace for parents to enter the building and sense that there is order and control. It becomes the culture of the school to be recognized as a positive and uplifting place to work and learn. And THAT is what you want to have said and thought about your school.
How do I know this? Because I started a huge culture shift in my school when I was hired as the full-time principal. This is my third year as the principal of my amazing small, rural school. We have experienced a shift of amazing magnitude and we keep moving in a positive direction. I could list many other changes, but this isn’t about bragging- and that is SO NOT part of my nature. Was it my “amazing leadership”? Nope. It was a school and faculty that were aching for a change, and I was in a position to help make it possible. It was finally allowed to happen. And you- YES YOU, sitting here reading this article can make a change in YOUR school culture just as I did. I won’t say it was easy. Change is hard- really hard. But it is possible.
So, what are you waiting for? Get that second page filled out, set yourself some amazing goals, and get to work!
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