What is School Culture?

Written by Scott Wilson

School culture is the overall perception, attitudes, and behaviors that emerge from the social order of a school community to shape the experiences of everyone in it. Setting the right school culture is critical to effective educational leadership.

friends laughing outside at school

Every community or social group comes with a culture. In broad terms, culture is defined as the cumulative result of thought and efforts shared by the majority of people within that group. It’s a social phenomenon that emerges in every society. The routine interactions that individuals have with one another and the group form expressions and expectations. Those result in group norms of behavior, belief, and habits that come together to create culture.

Schools are no different than any kind of collective of individuals. As a specialized kind of society, they have a range of ages, hierarchies, and goals within them. Each individual brings their own experiences and background to school every day. They interact in different ways and adjust to one another’s behavior.

Both students and teachers are subject to school culture, and both have a role in shaping it.

But the educators with the most effect on culture and the biggest interest in shaping it are school leaders.

What Does School Culture Mean in Terms of Fostering Education?

global cultureCulture itself is a learned value. It is the product of the interconnections and interactions of individuals.

Where there is learning, there is the opportunity for education. So school culture and the quality of education it offers to students reflect one another. The same types of processes that teachers use to pass along advanced algebra or social studies concepts can be used to shape school culture, and the culture itself will affect how other knowledge and skills are acquired.

Culture emerges from the values and practices of the individuals that participate in it.

School culture, in particular, is unique because it is a subset of the cultures that exist in the larger community. It both absorbs those larger cultures and influences them in turn. A school is a melting pot for all kinds of individuals on a spectrum of socio-economic steps.

School cultures can also include subcultures of all shapes and sizes… the lunchtime library chess crowd, the cool teacher clique, the theater and music crew. It’s a melting pot, and one where school leaders don’t get to choose all the ingredients.

Shaping School Culture Is the Primary Role of Educational Leaders

kids in music classRecognizing what a school culture is only offers the start of the process for educational leaders. Just as important is deciding what the school culture should be.

Organizational culture in general is a focus of leaders. Culture is the lever they pull to influence behavior, goals, and perspectives even when they aren’t personally present.

Principals often have a fairly good idea what sort of school culture they want to foster to achieve their goals. They probably want to encourage values and characteristics such as:

In many cases, an appreciation of school culture and the need to shape it is instinctive for educational leaders. The importance is reflective of the culture they have emerged from themselves, as educators and students.

Often, leaders have an innate experience of school culture as a result of coming up through the ranks. But they also have some extra insights both on what school culture is and how it impacts school performance. With advanced training in educational leadership, they have gone through coursework that breaks down school culture bit by bit. They understand not only what goes into school culture, but why it’s important, and how to change it.

The Role of Educational Leadership in Developing School Culture

School leaders have to find ways to help these various subcultures gel and participate in the larger school culture. Just as individuals have different reactions and interactions with one another, so too do different subcultures.

Much of the job of a school leader is to foster positive interactions between those different cultures. They develop the overall culture of the school out of the sum of all those parts.

But it’s much easier to say that school culture is a critical piece of educational leadership than it is to actually drive it.

Developing A Deep Understanding of the Meaning of School Culture Is Critical for Educational Leaders

Because the relationships and perspectives that play into school culture are so diverse and complicated, it’s tough to figure out what threads to pull on to bring it in line with a larger vision.

That’s where educational leadership degrees come in. Programs like a Master of Education in Educational Leadership spend a great deal of time exploring both what school culture is and how to shape it. Even experienced teachers can develop insights after years of direct experience in school cultures as professors unpack the psychology and factors behind them.

All of these offer parts of the larger puzzle when it comes to understanding and ultimately shaping school cultures. Gaining that understanding at the root level is a critical part of becoming an effective school leader.

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