Why is School Culture Important?

Written by Scott Wilson

School culture is important in fostering a healthy and receptive environment for learning. Understanding and shaping school culture is one of the most critical jobs for educational leaders at every level.

laughing teachers in the hallway

Ask any school principal or district superintendent what the most important part of their job as an educational leader is, and building the right culture will surely be in the top ten answers.

Ask them about the toughest part of their job, and you’ll get the same result.

So why is school culture so important? What makes it worth the trouble of figuring out how to create a positive school culture? And how do you learn how to change the culture of a school for the better?

Educational leaders must answer those questions and more. And their journey to those answers starts through an educational leadership degree.

Understanding How to Build School Culture Is a Key Piece of the Educational Leadership Process

informal meetingLeaders focus on curating school culture so much because it may be the largest factor in how they influence jobs they can’t do themselves.

This is a key part of the educational leadership process. Leaders in any kind of sizable organization understand that they only ever have direct influence over a very tiny part of it.

Instead, to share and realize their vision for the school’s success, principals know they must shape the thinking of students and teachers. It’s those perceptions and motivations that lead to thousands of tiny actions and behaviors each day, throughout the school.

By setting the culture to match their goals, educational leaders have an impact on those actions even when they can’t be in the room. Decisions and choices are made that reflect their priorities because the culture itself reflects those priorities.

School Culture Sets the Stage for Academic Achievement

Not only is culture critical for leaders to have an impact, but it’s also important for the support and development of students and staff.

Since culture is so broadly defined, it’s immediately obvious that it will have a significant impact on academic achievement. But because evidence is important, many academics have studied how culture impacts school success.

The results show that school culture impacts thoughts and behaviors such as:

A 2017 meta-study on the effects of school culture on student achievement looked at 71 studies and found that most of them revealed a significant impact of culture on achievement levels.

Many other studies point directly to the importance of school leadership in setting that culture. So the emphasis that principals and superintendents put on building positive school culture is well-placed. It’s a responsibility that rests squarely on their shoulders.

How To Improve School Culture for Teachers and Students

students in uniformsOf course, it’s easy to talk about how to build a positive school culture. It’s a lot harder to actually make it happen. Almost every educational leader shows up to work on day one wondering how to change school culture to fit their needs.

This is where a formal education in educational leadership kicks in, however. Degrees in educational administration and leadership dive head-first into what factors into school culture. They turn it from a mess of vague, intangible ideas like spirit or tolerance into concrete measures.

But understanding what school culture is only gets you onto the first rung of a very tall ladder. And only inexperienced, untrained school leaders attempt to rush up those steps.

Don’t Rush to Change a School Culture Until You Fully Understand It

kids running in an outdoor hallWell-trained educational leaders know that it pays to take a step back and observe before jumping into any attempts to alter school culture. The complex array of interactions, obscured motivations, and hidden attitudes only show themselves with time. Trying to tinker with any piece of school culture without absorbing the big picture just drives more problems.

This step can involve not just quietly watching how people interact within the school environment, but also discussion and listening to both teachers and students. One thing you can be sure of is that everyone has something to say about the culture of their school, good or bad. A patient leader will assess and triangulate, getting a good perspective before making any changes.

Developing a Plan to Follow Keeps You on Track in Culture Building

explaining lesson at whiteboardNext, school leaders learn to put together a plan. As part of educational leaderships studies, you learn how developing an overarching vision is a critical part of the strategic planning process. While you may already have that vision firmly in mind when you walk through the big double doors on the first day of school, how you get there may not be clear.

But with a picture of the current school culture and how it supports or suppresses achieving your vision, you can develop steps to alter it. It’s likely to be a complicated picture; a big can-do attitude throughout your teaching staff could be a plus, but their gung-ho style might not be a match for the kind of empathy and compassion you are after.

So coming up with action items and developing metrics to measure how the culture can shift to better align with your vision will be your next step.

Paying Attention to Tiny Details Is the Ultimate Way to Build a Positive School Culture

students embracing teacherFinally, and most importantly, leaders must put in the hard work of developing the right culture. This is where educational leadership training really pays off.

That’s because there is no one trick or formula to developing a positive school culture. It’s the sum of hundreds of interpersonal interactions, tiny nudges, motivational goals, and individual relationships that come together to change attitudes and behaviors in the right direction.

The most important of these is the simple step of leading by example. Leaders gain respect and credibility by walking the talk first. As teachers and staff see you being the change you wish to see, they are each more likely to follow that lead.

Understanding each staff member and every student as individuals is another part of it. You reason with and motivate them based on your understanding of their personality and goals.

Offering the right extrinsic motivators is another tool in the kit for improving school culture. Whether it’s the promise of a school rally where you, the principal, end up in a dunk tank, or a contest that pits classrooms against one another in a fundraiser for community projects, there are a range of tried-and-true policies and activities that excite and motivate kids and staff.

None of these things are easy. Most of them won’t happen quickly. But when you do succeed in putting them in place, the payoff is huge.

A School Culture That Supports Educators and Kids Makes All the Difference

elementary kids smilingAs an educational leader, you make the call on what sort of culture offers the best path to building your vision.

In general, most educational leadership programs, and most understandings of how effective leadership works today, suggest a positive, supportive cultural environment. It’s one that respects individuals but encourages group performance.

Educational leaders understand that nurturing students and staff leads to the best educational outcomes.

According to the National School Climate Council (NSCC), there are five standards and sixteen indicators that support efforts to develop more supportive school culture. The standards are:

  1. Shared vision and plan
  2. Setting policies to promote development and address barriers to learning
  3. Prioritizing practices to promote learning, engagement, and sustainment in the community
  4. Creating a welcoming and safe environment
  5. Developing meaningful practices to promote social and civic responsibility

NSCC can’t give you the exact picture of what the vision, plan, policies, or practices for that culture are, however. That’s because what makes a supportive school culture can be very different based on the mix of cultures and attitudes in the surrounding community.

No principal enjoys a perfectly blank slate in forging school culture. Kids and teachers both come into the building every day, carting in attitudes and perspectives shaped by many factors well outside your control.

This reality can work to your advantage or can be an impediment to your goals. But it can’t be ignored in either case.

A Focus on Culture Is the Hallmark of Effective Educational Leadership

serious native american principalA strong academic background in educational leadership helps you weave together the strands from community and school environments.

Not only will the courses you take in an educational administration program give you definitive answers about why school culture is important, but they will hand you the tools you need to use it effectively. With classes in analytics, psychology, and social sciences, you’ll get the right foundation to stand on as you begin the Herculean task of shifting your own school culture.

Just as important, these programs come with on-the-ground experience observing and practicing leadership through internship placements. There’s no substitute for putting theoretical understanding to the test in a real-world environment. You’ll also get the mentorship of active school administrators who have their own tips and tricks. Many of those will have developed their expertise in your area, working with the same kinds of cultures you will be trying to change. That comes with invaluable lessons based on real experience, all of which will be passed on to you.

In time, building a positive school culture will become second nature to most principals and superintendents. And then you’ll be able to pass along the lessons you’ve learned over the years too.

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