For many school leaders, the busy nature of their day-to-day schedules can make it difficult to focus on school culture. But over the long term, it is critical to build a culture in which the needs of students and their success comes first, differences are celebrated, and students and staff are challenged to continuously improve.
Here is what we learned from some of Wisconsin’s top educational leaders.
School culture is built (and destroyed) in the blink of an eye
Whether or not you think you are building a culture, you are. It happens every moment of every day.
Staff members look to their leaders to witness the culture of the school. Such things as sincerity, transparency, empathy, mission, and a focus on students can be apparent in even the briefest of interactions. Never lose track of this.
Students should come first
Perhaps the simplest way to create a positive school culture is to focus on the school’s mission to meet the needs of every student, every day. Although leaders may encounter pushback as the culture of a school changes, holding ourselves and others accountable to the school’s mission and celebrating the actions that match the mission and are student-centered demonstrates that our actions align with our work as it relates to meeting the needs of all students.
Having strong relationships with staff and students was a key point for those with whom we spoke on this topic. Several educational leaders spoke of the importance of truly listening to students, parents, and staff; putting trust in their staff; seeking real feedback; having honest lines of communication as critical to their success in building a positive culture.
Leaders also reminded us that staff members who neither trust leadership nor believe that leaders are being transparent will be less willing to follow that leader. Instead, leaders must be a warm demander – being kind and empathetic but also willing to have difficult conversations when warranted.
Positive cultures differ from school to school
Some leaders, including those who lead two schools in their district, remind us that while there may be similarities between schools, each has its own culture. With this in mind, school leaders must work to understand the culture of their schools and not seek to find a one-size-fits-all culture. Each school is unique.
The leaders we spoke with explained that they could measure progress toward improving their school’s culture by listening to what students, parents, staff and community members say about the school.
“Don’t just walk your hallways. Be in the trenches so that you know the strife your staff is facing,” said one leader.
Beyond being visible and approachable as means to gather feedback, all the leaders described the necessity of being vulnerable to feedback and developing processes to seek regular input.
Many schools employ surveys to parents, students and staff to solicit this input. But ultimately, leaders indicated the best feedback was students’ academic growth, the closing of equity gaps, and student behavioral data. If students are learning at greater levels each year and achievement gaps are closing, the culture of the school is likely to be positive.
While student learning can also be evidence of other elements of a school, such as strong curriculum and instructional practices, students will have a difficult time learning if they do not feel safe and do not have expectations for success.
QUICK TAKE: The greatest champion for kids in the school should be the principal. School culture is not built overnight, but rather over time, through myriad interactions. Successful school leaders focus squarely on putting students first and doing the hard work related to equity and ensuring all students succeed. Building a great school culture means having strong and trusting relationships. This means listening and being willing to have hard conversations. Finally, just like with any other improvement effort, it should be monitored with careful consideration to the ultimate measure: student success.
Special thanks to the educational leaders who contributed their thoughts to this article:
Each of their schools has demonstrated a) high growth in reading and/or math scores in the past three school years or more with strong to exceptional proficiency, or, b) reading and/or math proficiency in the top 10% in the past three years or more with strong to exceptional growth, or, c) a school comprised of a high-poverty population, with high growth in reading and/or math in the past three years or more, or d) gap closure on reading and/or math.
By Dr. Danielle Bosanec, Chief Academic Officer, Pewaukee School District