older students talking outside school

Expert Input: 10 Ways Educational Leaders Can Build Positive School Environments

Written by Sam Medley

Describing a positive school environment isn’t difficult. It’s a fun yet instructive space for students and a great place to work for faculty and staff. Everyone has the opportunity to grow, and no talent goes unnurtured.

Great. But how does a school actually get to that point? Is it even possible?

To Jon Konen, principal of Columbia Falls High School in northwestern Montana, there’s no magical point to get to. Instead, it’s more about the journey:

“I’ve worked my entire career to create positive school cultures. Learning occurs at such a higher level, at a quicker pace, and more effectively when we can do that.”

Mr. Konen isn’t alone in his stance. According to the US Department of Education, schools with healthy climates often have better graduation rates, retention rates, and test scores than those with less positive cultures. More specifically, students learning in positive environments are ten times as likely to drastically increase their performance in math and reading. Conversely, less healthy school environments are more likely to breed bullying, behavioral issues, and mental health problems amongst staff and students alike.

Over the course of his 25-year career, Mr. Konen has helped countless schools develop their own nurturing cultures. Recently, he sat down with EducationalLeadershipDegree.com to discuss the 10 ways that school leaders of all kinds can do the same.

Jon Konen

jon konenAfter earning his BS in Elementary Education in 1998, Jon Konen began his education career as a second-grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. He then earned his Master’s in K-12 Educational Leadership and returned to his home state of Montana to serve as an elementary school teacher, district teaching coach, and a principal. In 2020, he became superintendent of the Corvallis School District but returned to his role as a principal in 2022 so he could live out his true passion: helping students and teachers on a daily basis.

1. Make Relationships the Focus

Before starting a school improvement campaign, Mr. Konen says leaders need to empower everyone in the building to build strong interpersonal relationships:

“Define what a positive relationship looks like. Teach to it and implement ideas and strategies to make sure that you have flourishing relationships that continue beyond the walls of the school. Those powerful relationships can drive so many other areas.”

leading team meeting

As diverse as school relationships can be (student-student, student-teacher, parent-teacher, etc.) a paper published in the Journal of School Administration Research asserts that they’re all built on the same three things: rapport, trust, and communication. Mr. Konen and the paper’s author agree that fostering relationships in schools must be an extremely directed effort.

For example, teacher leaders and administrators can host professional development classes on topics like active listening and establish clear lines of communication between schools and parents. To build trust, though, Mr. Konen believes it’s important to create structures that truly put student well-being first:

“In my district, we have a home homeless liaison that works with students individually and collectively to make sure that we’re getting students those basic needs first. Once we have some of those basic needs I think we can take our students a lot further.”

2. Take a Servant Leadership Approach

In Mr. Konen’s experience, the healthiest schools are full of leaders who shy away from giving orders from on high:

“Ultimately, it’s the teacher that works with the students, is driving the instruction, and driving the growth of our students socially, emotionally, and academically. We are there to support our staff. We’re there asking our teachers if not once a week, every day, ‘What can I do to help support you in the classroom?’”

Mr. Konen’s approach, called servant leadership, can have profound effects on a school’s workplace culture. In an academic review published by the Education Resources Information Center, researchers found that teachers who work with principals practicing servant leadership are often more satisfied with their jobs, more confident, and more likely to reach their professional goals. Just as importantly, they’re also likely to bring this person-centered approach into their own classrooms.

3. Share Positive Narratives

In a positive environment, school feels like more than school. It feels like a place where possibilities take root and blossom into full-fledged success stories. According to Mr. Konen, sharing these narratives can be a powerful motivational tool:

“I think if we did a better job of celebrating the stories that we have in our schools, we can change the course of the school and how public education looks and feels for our students and families in a more positive manner.”

Mr. Konen’s words highlight how ill-perceived the American education system really is. A 2022 survey conducted by national education research organization EdChoice found that over half of parents with children currently in K-12 schools feel negative about the direction of education in the US. And while about 86% of fifth graders think their classes will help them in the future, only 53% of high school seniors agree. Students and parents alike need to hear real-world stories about how education improves lives.

4. Actively Engage All Stakeholders (And Hold Them Accountable)

Parent-teacher conferences, social events, and volunteer opportunities are classic ways to invite parents into the school community. Likewise, leaders can foster community bonds by hosting job expos, neighborhood meetings, and even more creative things like community gardens and workshops. However, as school leaders engage these dynamic stakeholders, Mr. Konen urges them to keep the relationships focused on the needs of students and teachers:

“A lot of times we don’t talk about that accountability piece with our community or our parents. We talk about accountability with our students and our teachers. And so first, we have to build that relationship and we have to get them in and engaged to be able to build.”

5. Use Data to Drive Decision-Making

Most experienced educators have walked out of a staff meeting thinking, “Why are we doing this? The superintendent doesn’t have a clue.” As a teacher-turned-administrator, Mr. Konen used this experience to inform his own decision-making processes:

“Too many times we make decisions without data or anything to track whether we’re making progress or not.”

For instance, if increasing inclusivity is part of a school’s action plan, the principal may want to look at enrollment, academic achievement, graduation, and activity participation data first. Using this quantitative data, they can then take student and teacher polls to collect qualitative, person-reported information. By continuing this procedure, schools can measure whether they’ve been successful and determine if they need to change strategies.

6. Celebrate All Achievements Equally

State football championships are often met with fanfare, flag-waving, and local news coverage. And while those students and coaches deserve every ounce of praise, Mr. Konen says that enthusiasm should extend outside of the Friday night lights:

“A lot of times we celebrate the athletic endeavors of our students and athletes, but are you doing the same thing at the same level for students for academics and achievement? Those are some of the pieces we need to build that foundation of a positive school culture.”

But along with building a culture of mutual respect, studies suggest that high student self-esteem is related to high academic achievement and engagement. However, Mr. Konen says this celebratory atmosphere shouldn’t just be directed at students:

“And then along with that is how are we celebrating teachers? Everyone likes to work in an environment where people are getting acknowledged.”

woman clapping in classroom group

7. Make Communication Easy, Open, and Accessible

School communications can be boring and easily ignored by parents, staff, and students alike. But in Mr. Konen’s experience, positive schools tend to be a little more creative:

“A lot of schools are shying away from social media, but some are just taking it on with a fervor. Some even have their own TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. I think schools could learn a little bit from the business sector on marketing. A lot of times, schools put stuff up on a website and tell people, ‘Hey, it’s on the website’. That can’t be the only place where we have information getting out to our families.”

A simple social media post can keep even the busiest parents in-the-know about weather delays, health initiatives, and other things their kids might not discuss around the dinner table. And with a regularly updated social media page, all stakeholders have a convenient way to connect. At the same time, these posts offer a glimpse into what a robust learning environment actually looks like.

8. Give Teachers Time to Actually Carry Out School Strategies

Consider the case of a school that, in the name of improving student engagement, wants teachers to spend time talking about clubs and other activities. Mr. Konen says empowering teachers to carry out initiatives is critical to the process:

“A lot of times, teachers are asked to start teaching right away — ‘Open your book to page 71.’ We often start like that in a classroom. But we have to allow our teachers to build strategies and structures to be able to build relationships with our students.”

In some cases, Mr. Konen’s advice might include revising class schedules, lesson plan requirements, professional development days, and perhaps even staffing. These may seem like daunting changes, but if the goal is a more positive learning environment, it’s vital to address them.

9. Be Deliberate While Setting Goals

Developing specific, actionable, and measurable goals is important for logistical reasons. But Mr. Konen says it can also be great for morale:

“If all of us can work around one main goal and maybe several sub-goals, and we’re all on the same page, we all believe that we can make a difference. That can create collective efficacy, the ability to work as a school on a given concept,  and a positive growth mindset. Those are huge components to a positive school culture.”

To support his argument, Mr. Konen points to the work of Dr. John Hattie, an award-winning education professor whose career has focused on the power of collective efficacy.

The foundation of Dr. Hattie’s philosophy is that education professionals can achieve so much more as a team. However, this is only possible when everyone has actionable goals to work towards and knows how their success will be measured. With these systems in place, educators develop confidence in their own and their coworkers’ abilities. A summary of Dr. Hattie’s work uses over 1,500 works of research to demonstrate how effective this approach can be. In fact, collective efficacy can influence student outcomes three times more than student socioeconomic status.

10. Be Creative and Relentless In Your Pursuit of Resources

A positive school environment isn’t just an ideal. It’s a physical, tangible thing. To engage and empower students, teachers need basic supplies, materials for fun hands-on projects, and a salary that reflects the important work they do. Unfortunately, Mr. Konen says that providing these things is an uphill battle:

“Having the resources, recruiting the best staff, and retaining them is becoming more difficult all the time. Our school budgets have been either decreasing or haven’t been done at a level where we put education number one in our communities.”

This complex issue requires leaders to enact short-term fixes and long-term solutions. Using Mr. Konen’s data-focused strategy might help school business administrators identify their most critical areas of improvement and strategically allocate resources to address them. At some schools, administrators even compare their own data with that of better-performing schools with similar budget constraints to gain ideas and insights.

The long-term fight, though, will require a different sort of work: advocacy. Talented educational leaders will have to join forces with non-profits, local legislators, and the community at large to secure the resources their schools so desperately need. While that will be much easier said than done, it’s imperative to making positive school environments a reality for children and impassioned professionals everywhere.

5 Questions Educational Leaders Ask When Trying to Build Positive School Environments

A positive school environment is characterized as a fun yet instructive space where students can grow and talents are nurtured. Such environments lead to higher graduation rates, retention rates, and test scores. Conversely, negative environments can result in bullying, behavioral issues, and mental health problems. Creating a nurturing culture enhances learning and supports student and staff well-being.

School leaders can empower individuals to build strong interpersonal relationships by defining a positive relationships, teaching and implementing strategies for fostering these relationships, and ensuring they extend beyond the school’s walls. This involves professional development in active listening, establishing clear communication lines, and creating structures prioritizing student well-being, such as appointing a homeless liaison.

Servant leadership is where leaders prioritize supporting their staff and asking how they can help rather than dictating orders. This method has resulted in more job satisfaction among teachers, increased confidence, and a higher likelihood of achieving professional goals. It encourages a person-centered approach, positively impacting the school’s workplace culture.

Sharing positive narratives helps to motivate students and families by showcasing real-world success stories stemming from educational achievements. This practice can change perceptions of public education, highlighting its benefits and the positive outcomes it can facilitate. Celebrating these stories can also counteract negative feelings about the direction of education in the U.S

Using data to inform decisions ensures that school initiatives are based on evidence rather than assumptions. This approach involves analyzing quantitative data (e.g., enrollment academic achievements) and collecting qualitative feedback (e.g., student and teacher polls) to measure the effectiveness of strategies and make necessary adjustments. Data-driven decision-making can help achieve specific goals, such as increasing inclusivity or enhancing student engagement.

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