The Importance of School Culture for a Healthy Working and Learning Environment


School culture was long identified with the day-to-day management of the school, and the strongest emphasis was placed on its policies and various rules of conduct that applied both to the employees and the students. In recent years, there has been a shift away from that perspective or, more precisely, an expansion of the definition of the term.

While rules and management remain vital for every educational establishment, school culture became identified with the overall “feel” of the place. Is the staff comfortable in their roles? Do they do their work willingly, diligently, and in cooperation with their colleagues? Are students satisfied with their progress and achievements? Is there laughter roaring through the building during class breaks?

All of the above and more speaks volumes about the culture and climate of an educational institution. High schools across America seem to be demotivating the people roaming their halls — the Learning Policy Institute identifies teacher turnover as a pressing issue, and the percentile of dropouts has reached 5.4%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

For a school to provide a healthy environment to both work and learn in, it has to foster a strong culture that will be the motivator for its students, instructors, and administrators alike. 

What Is School Culture?

School culture is a broad and nearly-impossible-to-define term. Generally speaking, it entails the school’s norms, traditions, rituals, and values. It is inextricably linked to the relationships that exist among the staff members and between teachers and students. It also encompasses the attitudes and involvement of all stakeholders in the school and how aligned they are with its vision and mission.

Culture includes setting clear expectations of everyone involved in the school. The students benefit from being taught the required rules of conduct and from goal-driven instruction, while the staff do their jobs more enthusiastically if they have an end goal in mind, as well as the support and resources to achieve it. Culture is, therefore, essential for both employee job satisfaction and student learning and growth. 

Successful schools are deemed to have healthy and positive cultures. If the importance of school culture is disregarded, the school can become a toxic learning and working environment and fail to achieve its educational goals.

When a school embodies a positive ethos, its focal point is always to serve students and equip them with the necessary skills to thrive in adulthood. A toxic culture will only hinder the school in achieving that purpose. That is why correcting a negative school culture is paramount for a functioning educational setting, which strives to promote student achievements and high staff morale. 

Here is an overview of the main traits that distinguish between the negative and positive school culture.

A School With a Positive Culture

A School With a Negative Culture

  • Celebrates individual and communal achievements
  • Encourages collaboration, communication, and innovation
  • Has a healthy sense of community and promotes collegiality
  • Has high expectations from staff members and students, which the majority are successful in achieving 
  • Teaches pupils to study to build a better future for themselves, and motivates the staff to work hard on constant professional improvement
  • Fosters consistent parent involvement
  • Has a passive attitude towards (and fails to recognize) excellence
  • Doesn’t invest effort or funds to improve its educational methods
  • Has a fragmented staff with an “each-to-themselves” attitude
  • Lacks ambition and doesn’t set high standards for success
  • Allows the learning to be done only to meet the grading requirements, and the work to stretch from payment to payment
  • Fails to inspire the community to be involved in the school’s programs

The Elements of School Culture

For a school to develop a strong culture, it needs to identify the key areas that will help establish and nurture a healthy atmosphere. There are specific aspects of every educational facility that make up its culture and climate and that play a vital role in their maintenance.

Here are the essential elements of the healthy school culture:

  1. Shared norms and values
  2. Effective leadership
  3. Employees
  4. Rituals of renewal
  5. Celebratory rituals
  6. Balance
  7. Participation

Shared Norms and Values

Making sure that everyone knows how things are done in a particular establishment is instrumental in keeping everything running smoothly in it. The staff, the students, and the local community have to understand what the school’s mission is and how it plays into achieving the school’s vision. The stakeholders in the school also have to be unanimous in many other matters, including student discipline, classroom rules, orderliness rules, and employee conduct.

Effective Leadership

In terms of promoting school culture, the role of the headmaster is that of the hero/heroine. They need to be the role model of behavior and attitude for both students and the staff by implementing the core values for others to look up to and mimic. Every change begins at the top levels, and proper symbolic leadership of the principal (as opposed to managerial and organizational leadership) is instrumental for achieving the positive school culture.


Just like the school leader, the staff plays an equally vital role in implementing the school culture. This refers to teachers, in particular, as they are the mouthpiece of the school’s leadership — they are responsible for instructing students and parents to adopt the same values and comply with the school’s norms.

Rituals of Renewal

Innovation is an integral part of a successful school. Regular seminars, workshops, and other opportunities for the staff’s professional development will keep instruction fresh for both students and teachers. It will also ensure that the school is up-to-date with the latest trends in education, and the employees will, in turn, feel increased work motivation and be more likely to advance in their careers. That is instrumental for teacher retention.

Celebratory Rituals

The school has to build the tradition of recognizing and rewarding individual achievements of staff members and students alike. The best way to do that is by organizing festivities and celebrations to showcase those accomplishments to a wider audience in its community. Such traditions will boost everyone’s morale and make the school a fun place to be.


The school’s teachers should find the perfect balance between innovation and tradition in order to apply the best teaching methods in their instruction. The same applies to how the students learn — educators need to exert control and give pupils autonomy in equal measure.


Everyone — the leadership, the staff, and the community — should contribute to fostering a healthy school culture, as well as take part in decision-making. Parent involvement is particularly relevant — parents and school representatives should communicate openly and regularly, give feedback to each other, and suggest further steps for aiding the students in their education. Having the students’ families on board with the school’s program is not only beneficial for student progress but can also open up opportunities for additional fundraising.

Why Is a Positive School Culture Important?

Credit: Inside Higher Ed

We have already established that the primary role of the principal as a symbolic leader is to develop and maintain a positive school culture. However, even the most capable leader cannot win this hard battle alone. It is imperative that they are backed up by their army of employees who will continue to nurture and maintain the healthy culture of their school.

Schools that develop a positive climate reap a host of benefits and accumulate successes in various fields:

  • The students are high-achievers and complete their education, lowering the number of dropouts.
  • The staff become experts in their respective fields.
  • Teachers tend to remain in their posts for a long time, increasing the school’s teacher retention rates.
  • The school enjoys a stellar reputation as a successful educational institution in the broad community.

The Repercussions of a Toxic School Culture

Many schools tend to neglect their culture and put effort into other, less relevant matters, such as advertising, enforcing stricter rules of conduct and discipline, and increasing the workload of both students and staff. Some schools fail to put enough emphasis on the professional development of their employees, and neither commend the successes of their best pupils nor strive to offer additional help for those students who have trouble keeping up with the curriculum.

Such environments are neither healthy nor desirable, and inevitably suffer the consequences of the negative school culture on a regular basis. Since it takes time to improve the climate and raise morale, these schools tend to experience frequent disenrollments and staff resignations. 

The Role of the School’s Principal 

Credit: Shipman Northcutt @Unsplash

Schools become toxic environments when the staff isn’t aware that a positive climate is the most fertile ground for the primary and ultimate goal of any educational establishment — student achievement. Principals as school leaders play a key role in developing a healthy culture, as well as recognizing the areas for improvement.

School headmasters are responsible for managing the school’s budget, organizing activities, and overseeing the staff and classes. Apart from those organizational duties, the principal has another vital role to play — that of a symbolic leader. 

A capable symbolic leader motivates all stakeholders in the school to work toward the same goal and bring the school’s vision to fruition. The best way to achieve that is to nurture a healthy school culture. Principals have to act as the agents of change and model the proper attitude and behavior for others to adopt and mimic. Extensive research has shown that the school’s effective leadership indirectly leads to improved student performance.

An effective principal needs to: 

  1. Observe. The first thing any principal needs to do is read into the present culture through careful observation.
  2. Identify. Next, the headmaster needs to understand which aspects improve the atmosphere in the school and which bring it down.
  3. Implement. The time then comes for the leader to get to work — that includes reinforcing the school’s strengths and replacing the weak points with other rituals, traditions, and norms.

Improving school culture is not a task that can be done overnight. Even when a healthy school culture is achieved, it isn’t guaranteed to last. A successful leader doesn’t neglect culture and never considers it a done deal — they stay informed on the school culture and make keeping track of and analyzing it a regular part of their schedule.

The Importance of School Culture and How to Improve It

To boost the school culture, the school leader has to work on improving many different aspects of the school and change how it operates. The shareholders must also take part in shaping their school’s culture.

Here are the essential steps for improving the school culture:

  1. Encourage collegiality.  Leaders must encourage coworkers to treat each other with respect and as equals. The staff should be taught to cooperate and communicate on the regular in order to be on the same path to success.
  2. Improve efficacy. The school’s decision-making processes and the enforcement of those decisions are a mirror image of its efficacy. Everyone involved in the school should take part in making those decisions. 
  3. Set high expectations. Leaders must be vocal about what they expect from their staff, and once the goals have been reached, they must celebrate those who contributed to the school’s improvement and reward their excellence.
  4. Experiment. A successful school should always explore new approaches and try out new methods in order to keep up with the times and adapt instruction to the real-world needs of the students.
  5. Instill trust and confidence. The pupils and their families should believe that the school is capable of setting its students up for success — from college to career and beyond.
  6. Provide support. For true advancements to be made and innovative methods applied, the instructors must have full support from the school in terms of the resources they need to make those changes, and all resources must be available to everyone.
  7. Honor traditions. Having first school day ceremonies, Christmas festivities, year-end celebrations, graduation parties, and other gatherings will boost morale and help preserve the values the school fosters in its community.

Although the above are the main aspects that contribute to the positive school culture, there is much more to be done to achieve it. It all depends on the school in question and the areas that a knowledgeable principal identifies as the ones to improve on.

Here are some resources that can help in that endeavor.

Resources  Significance 
Family-School-Community Partnerships Stresses how relevant it is that all stakeholders in a school work together
Teacher Stress and Health Identifies the main culprits for teacher job dissatisfaction
Teacher Turnover Report Reveals the statistics of high teacher turnover and suggests actions for lower it
Coherent School Leadership — Forging Clarity From Complexity Comprises an instructional manual for principals on building school culture
Treating Students Like Humans The importance of social-emotional learning for student success

The Effects of School Culture on Student Achievement

Credit: Student Futures

Efficient leaders, unified employees, and motivated students are the main agents in shaping the school culture. It plays a vital role in both employee job satisfaction and student achievement. While the school staff undoubtedly feel more driven to work and advance in a school that nurtures its positive culture, the main beneficiaries are and should always be the students.

Experience has shown that headmasters who perform their duties efficiently and maintain a healthy atmosphere in their establishments enjoy better student outcomes in their schools. By fostering strong school cultures, principals not only inspire the school’s personnel to be more successful in their jobs but also aid their students in achieving high goals. Therefore, the role of the principal in shaping a positive school culture is indirectly yet inextricably linked to student success. 

In 2018, the number of students aged 16–19 who weren’t enrolled in high school was 8%, according to a report by Education Data. The reasons behind that staggering statistics are various — including pregnancy, social status, poverty, and delinquency — but the fact remains that the percentile would have likely been significantly lower had the youth been supported and aided by their schools.

The education in America needs to show more interest in these problem groups and do its utmost to help them reach their full potential too. The students who remain at school require stronger, more functional education that will prepare them for their futures. Principals and the school staff ought to establish a welcoming, supportive culture that will help mould the students of today into successful leaders of tomorrow.

Why Is School Culture Important for the American Educational System

Today’s schools must foster the development of versatile, highly educated students in order to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

The matter is more urgent now than ever before because the American high school system has come to a standstill and is in dire need of change. U.S. high schools have barely changed since the 1900s, while the way we do everything else has transformed beyond recognition in the same time frame.

Today’s workforce is judged by what it can do in practice, as opposed to what it was taught about theoretically in the classroom. But high schools in the U.S. are far from being up to the task. It is our duty as educators to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide them with a better start in their future lives.

A critical component of successful educational institutions is a healthy and supportive school culture, but achieving it is anything but an easy feat.

Does your school have a positive culture?

Tell us what makes it exceptional and how it facilitates the teaching and learning in your establishment. We will publish your story on our blog because we believe that your experience will empower hundreds of others to strive for the same goal.

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