When it comes to a good school culture, common expectations are that students and staff are treated respectfully and that the school environment is conducive to uninterrupted learning.
However, a recent session of the National Institute for Urban School Leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows that it’s not that simple, and building a positive culture involves careful considerations about connections, core beliefs and behaviours.
Associate professor of education, Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, told Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge that “a culture will be strong or weak depending on the interactions between the people in the organisation”.
“In a strong culture, there are many, overlapping, and cohesive interactions among all members of the organisation,” Bridwell-Mitchell said.
“As a result, knowledge about the organization’s distinctive character – and what it takes to thrive in it – is widely spread and reinforced.”
In a weak culture, says Bridwell-Mitchell, sparse interactions make it difficult for people to learn the organisation’s culture, so its character is barely noticeable and the commitment to it is scarce or sporadic.
She said beliefs, values, and actions will spread the farthest and be tightly reinforced when everyone is communicating with everyone else.
“In a strong school culture, leaders communicate directly with teachers, administrators, counselors, and families, who also all communicate directly with each other,” Bridwell-Mitchell explained.
“A culture is weaker when communications are limited and there are fewer connections.”
For example, if certain teachers never hear directly from their principal, an administrator is continually excluded from communications, or any groups of staff members are operating in isolation from others, it will be difficult for messages about shared beliefs and commitments to spread.
Bridwell-Mitchell said culture is ultimately shaped by five interwoven elements, each of which principals have the power to influence:
Fundamental beliefs/assumptions: For example: “All students have the potential to succeed,” or “Teaching is a team sport.”
Shared values: For example: “It’s wrong that some of our kindergarteners may not receive the same opportunity to graduate from a four-year college,” or “The right thing is for our teachers to be collaborating with colleagues every step of the way.”
Norms: For example: “We should talk often and early to parents of young students about what it will take for their children to attend college.” “We all should be present and engaged at our weekly grade-level meetings.”
Patterns/behaviours: For example: There are regularly-scheduled parent engagement nights around college; there is active participation at weekly team curriculum meetings. (But in a weak culture, these patterns and behaviors can be different than the norms.)
Tangible evidence: For example: Prominently displayed posters showcasing the district’s college enrollment, or a full parking lot an hour before school begins on the mornings when curriculum teams meet.
“Each of these components influences and drives the others, forming a circle of reinforcing beliefs and actions,” Bridwell-Mitchell said.
“Strong connections among every member of the school community reinforce the circle at every point.”
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