How Do Leaders Influence the Culture of Schools?

Written by Scott Wilson

How do leaders influence the culture of schools? School leaders influence the culture in schools by communicating, living, and reinforcing their core values. They use various techniques learned in leadership studies to shape the attitudes and behaviors of staff and students to achieve a more supportive and effective school environment.

group of students

Much of the day-to-day work of an educational leader will involve shaping the culture of their organization.

That’s because culture is one way that leaders can lead even when they aren’t present. Their thoughts, ideas, and attitudes about how the organization should operate can be woven into a culture so that even individuals who haven’t met or talked to them may still act how the leader prefers.

That’s the power of culture, but it’s much easier to talk about it than to do it.

Understanding the Complexity of Culture Is the First Step in Influencing It

School culture is hard to define, which is why methods to influence it are also tough to pin down. But despite being such a hazy concept, modern leadership studies identify school culture as bring a critical part of instructional leadership.

The best teachers with the greatest resources in the world can’t make much difference in a school with a poor learning culture. Yet a school with a strong cultural base can overcome all kinds of obstacles for high educational achievement.

School culture is the shared attitudes, perceptions, and actions of everyone who participates in the school community.

The right culture gives teachers and kids alike a can-do attitude. The unspoken commitments they make to one another and the community can accomplish more than any number of orders, memos, or incentives.

While some leaders have an instinct for ways to lead their teams to positive and effective cultures, for most it’s a learned skill. And because school culture is so important in educational achievement, it’s a skill that many educational leadership degree programs revolve around.

Building the Skillset to Influence Culture Through Educational Leadership Degree Studies

working together in college library

It’s no accident that licensure as a principal or superintendent requires a master’s degree or higher in leadership studies.

Any kind of leadership degree comes with exactly the skills needed to influence organizational culture. A typical Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership will include coursework in areas such as:

These all tie back to the sort of techniques that leaders use to influence school culture.

Since culture extends to every aspect of school systems, even junior leaders with the right training can have significant influence in their schools.

On top of the raw knowledge needed to effectively influence school culture, educational leadership degrees also put you into internship placements where you can watch it as it happens.

Why Influence Is as Good as It Gets in Changing School Cultures

elementary students and principal

Influence is the right word to use when thinking about how leaders interact with school culture. As a blend of individuals and social groups that make up a community, schools aren’t a place where any one person can set a culture by themselves. Leaders who try to do it all alone don’t often get very far.

The best a strong educational leader can do to push school culture in the right direction is with nudges and a kind of judo that leverages existing cultural elements to develop more effective outcomes.

That’s a situational skill. Leadership is about having the knowledge and perception to understand where and how to use that leverage. And it’s a skill that can be taught and demonstrated. Going through advanced studies in educational leadership is one of the most important ways you can learn when and where to apply cultural influence in schools.

How Leaders Influence the Culture of Schools Using Their Degree Training

group working together on project

There are hundreds of ways, large and small, that leaders use to influence school culture. It can be something as subtle as consistently using specific language to describe a social group, or as major as launching a full-blown training program. Maybe it comes through big changes that need community buy-in, like adopting a school uniform policy.

But you’ll find that almost every technique draws on your training.

Research and Psychology Allow School Leaders to Pick the Most Influential Techniques

Making matters more complex, any of those techniques may be exactly right or exactly wrong depending on the type of change the leader is seeking and the current culture of the school. The attitudes and expectations of students and staff will change how they receive different types of influence.

The exhaustive research training that comes with thesis, dissertation, or capstone projects in educational leadership programs is great practice for figuring these questions out. With the ability to carefully observe and draw significant conclusions from data, you’ll quickly zoom in on the key pieces. And with the developmental psychology and behavioral analysis coursework available, you’ll see important cultural levers that others may miss.

Ethics Studies Allow Leaders to Influence Culture by Their Own Behavior

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Perhaps the number one way that leaders influence school culture is through their own actions.

Any leadership role comes with a kind of bully pulpit. The job title itself has a built-in level of influence. People will tend to look to anyone in a leadership role and instinctively follow their lead.

But earning and holding the respect of your team requires ethical decisions and actions. Understanding the expectations and systems of educational ethics are takeaways from your leadership studies.

Communications Skills Put Observations to Good Use in Influence School Culture

Leaders also get to know their team to understand what makes them tick. Culture is a compilation of all the different individuals and their beliefs and attitudes in a school. Sometimes influencing culture comes down to figuring out exactly what to say and who to say it to.

This draws on your strategic communications training. By learning how to pitch your ideas in ways the audience will be most receptive to, you gain extra traction.

Project Management Teaches You How to Master the Long Process of Cultural Influence in Educational Environments

Cultural influence doesn’t happen overnight. Leaders must read the room before they can even start. Putting a plan together to shift cultural norms takes time. The actual work of influencing those norms is longer yet. It can be years before even the most effective educational leaders see real results from their work.

That’s why having a plan and sticking with it is essential. This is exactly what courses in project management will teach you in your educational leadership program.

Influencing the culture of your school will be one of the hardest problems you face as a leader at any level. But with patience, insight, and the skills you learn along the way, it will also be the most rewarding challenges you overcome. And it’s the tool that will get you to every other goal you have for the school you love.

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