What makes a strong school culture?

What makes a strong school culture?

Every school has its own culture, and this is often influenced by the school’s history, staff and physical environment.

However, while these cultures may be varied, they aren’t always necessarily effective in shaping the shared values of the school.

Research by associate professor, Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, an expert in school policy and leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shows how, through foresight, intentional action, and reflection, principals can achieve this.

Professor Bridwell-Mitchell told Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge that principals can use six areas of focus to help with sustaining or changing the culture in their schools.

Look in the mirror

According to Professor Bridwell-Mitchell, the leader is the main role model for an organisation.

“Everything a leader does – her statements and philosophy, reactions to key events, energy and interaction style – influences culture in a powerful way,” Professor Bridwell-Mitchell said.

“If you want a collaborative staff, ask colleagues for advice early and often. If you want teachers to hold students to high expectations, reaffirm your own belief not only in young people but also in your staff.”

Select staff wisely

“The teachers and administrators you hire will enter your school with their own beliefs about education and expectations about what it will be like to work at your school,” Professor Bridwell-Mitchell said.

“When hiring and mentoring, ask questions that help reveal whether those beliefs and expectations align with the ones you want your school community to hold. Those beliefs and norms will only grow stronger in a tight-knit community.”

Teach what you’d like to see

Professor Bridwell-Mitchell said that principals should create formal trainings and space for honest conversation about the attitudes, norms, and practices that are core to being a member of your school community.

“Use those trainings and other professional development to model the beliefs and behaviors you desire. Offer rewards [praise, written notes, community celebrations] for students and staff when they demonstrate those behaviors,” she said.

Broadcast your vision

“Every formal communication you have with your community should reflect and reinforce the culture,” Professor Bridwell-Mitchell said.

In every memo to staff, letter to parents, or address to students, make sure to:

  • highlight the future and what your school has the potential to achieve;
  • use data and facts to reduce ambiguity about your vision;
  • appeal to people’s emotions, values, and the deeper needs that motivate them;
  • stay positive, grateful, and idealistic, which is an important counterweight to any negative messages students or staff might receive;
  • use collective statements (“we are,” “we will”) to increase a feeling of belonging and collective identity.

Make your vision tangible

Professor Bridwell-Mitchell said mottos, symbolic objects, special traditions, and the design of physical space can all help reinforce your cultural vision, especially when the meaning of these tangible artifacts is consistently communicated.

“For example, regular celebrations of student and staff success is a reminder of what’s important. It also inspires continued commitment to shared values,” she said.

Restructure social networks

Culture is spread through connections, says Professor Bridwell-Mitchell.

“Figure out which people or groups are isolated from the community and figure out how to encourage greater interaction with others who are committed to the school culture,” she said.

“This way, everyone – not only you – helps your positive message spread more quickly and clearly.”