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One Person Can Change the Culture of an Entire School: 3 High Level Strategies for Educational Leaders

Have you ever been to a school where the culture was visibly negative or toxic?

Within the first five minutes you walk onto campus you see students acting recklessly without acknowledgement of safety of anyone else in their vicinity. As you walk from the parking lot to the front of the school you see students pushing, cursing, and harassing each other. When you walk into the school, you see the same thing happening in the hallways.

You wonder…where are the adults!?

After five minutes you realize adults are in their classrooms, some are showing up late for work, few are interacting with each other, nor with the students. You notice when negative student behavior occurs next to an adult in the hallway, the adult ignores the behavior.

After recently chatting with several leaders across the United States, this story is more common than you might think.

If you are a new leader, or a long-standing leader, of such a school, what would you do?

It might seem hopeless, but there must be something you can do to change this culture. Here are three high leverage strategies that focus on building trust and mending relationships.

1 - Morning Barometer Checks

walking the halls in the morning

How do you spend the first hour of your school day? One strategy that I have used in three school districts, garnered from a National Distinguished Principal, Bill Salonen (Morningside Elementary in Great Falls, Montana), is the morning Barometer Check.

Think about it. A barometer is an instrument that measures atmospheric pressure and that’s used to both forecast the weather and determine the altitude.

When the staff would start arriving at school, Mr. Salonen started his walk around the school. He would check in with as many staff members as possible. His daily goal was to talk to every person who worked in the building. In this manner, he was able to build strong relationships with both students and staff.

What I didn’t realize, though, is that he was actually gauging the school’s atmospheric pressure, forecasting what the day was going to be like for everyone, and determining the overall “altitude of culture” of the entire school.

As I started implementing this strategy, I found a plethora of ways to apply it!

I believe relationships drive school culture and nothing builds relationships better than spending time with someone, learning about their lives in and out of school, and building trust. By getting into everyone’s classroom before school started, I noticed I was cutting my emails down significantly. As I met face to face with people, I made sure to use body language, tone, and proximity to effectively communicate much more than my emails or texts could emanate! I challenged myself to learn two things from every staff member outside of our school conversations. This made relationship-building more meaningful and real. This was a goal I set for myself, but also something I encouraged staff to do.

The Barometer strategy was also effective for modeling to staff that relationships come first. I communicated that I expected staff to follow that model in building relationships with one another, and with students.

I believe when you genuinely care about staff members, you can help create an atmosphere of empathy and support that is contagious.

2 – Clear Communication on Accountability, Expectations, and Goal Setting

goal setting on tablet

When communication doesn’t include the rationale behind major points and directives, and is left up to individuals to interpret, the effectiveness can be jeopardized. I believe trust is built in small moments between two people, or a group of people, when communicating. I have learned that staff want to know that you as a leader are going to follow through with what you state. By modeling your own accountability, setting expectations for yourself, and making your goals visible to staff, you can create a culture with a strong learning environment where communication is valued by both faculty and students.

The ability to differentiate your communication style is valuable – whether it’s with the entire faculty, individual departments, grade level teams, or individuals. But having multiple mediums of communication can become cumbersome. Limiting the number of channels helps. For example, you might consider using one master schedule of all events that covers all meetings, special events, locations, times, etc.… if people want to contribute to the master schedule, they know how, and everyone understands that this is the location for events that are going to occur daily, weekly, or monthly.

At our school, I like to do a newsletter built from our master schedule that delineates what is going on for two weeks at a time. I always note that the second week in that two-week schedule is a rough draft since events, times, locations, and everything else can change from week to week.

Here are some communication tips I believe help create an effective and positive learning environment.

3 – Tell the Story by Celebrating Successes

what's your story

Though you may walk into a toxic atmosphere, you will most likely find pockets of greatness in the fray. We must start telling the story of the great things that are going on.

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you may not like what they are saying.”

In this manner, school communication has changed significantly over the past decade. Schools that continually work on culture are able to tell their story very effectively through multiple avenues.

Schools are using social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, email, website feeds, and more to tell their story. They connect with families and community members to celebrate and highlight the great things going on in the school. As a school leader, we must first believe there are great things going on. Once we start telling this story consistently over time, it becomes contagious. More and more people want to be a part of the story… and the story telling.

It is everyone’s job to tell the story of the school. If we only tell the story of the horrible things going on, then that is what we will get…it is destined to repeat. We can use the negatives as the place where we start to build our goals. Goals are always positive no matter where they might begin. I am not asking anyone to ignore the hurdles and struggles, I am asking them to find and build upon the positives.

Positive behavior is contagious.  

Using All Three Strategies Simultaneously 

little super heroes on hillside

It is extremely difficult as a school leader to change the culture of a school. It takes a team. The time needed for change can vary, but using all three of these strategies simultaneously can help speed up the process, build trust, and get the right people into the school to serve our students.

All three strategies are based upon building and maintaining strong relationships with staff. And, in turn, it is expected that staff use similar strategies with students. In fact, I believe a strong indicator of how successful your implementation is as a leader is how many staff members are buying in and replicating these strategies with students without being required to do so.    

What other high leverage strategies would you use to rapidly change the culture in a school?

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