School Culture and Climate—The Role of the Leader

Education is on the brink of massive changes. Hundred-year-old school practices and principles—which are sadly still being employed—are no longer conducive to real-life learning. They cannot prepare students for their 21-century careers after high school adequately.

Whether you’re starting a new school or are looking to bring innovations into the school you’re in charge of, your leadership style will affect every level of operation within it as well as the overall school culture and school climate.

The climate and culture of a school are broad concepts because they relate to everything that is going on in a school community, including classroom practices, administrative decisions, the relationships between teachers and students, and the ones between teachers and principals.

It is the principals who can have the most profound effect on a school climate and culture. Knowing how these two concepts work in practice, all the areas they encompass, and how you can contribute to the shaping of positive school culture is your first task as a leader.

Right after that comes active participation in your school community. Being able to lead an educational institution successfully requires a lot of hard work—on yourself, your school, and your educational leadership skills.

Credit: Joshua Hoehne

What Are School Culture and Climate?

School culture and climate are not concepts that are easy to define. It doesn’t help that they are also often used interchangeably. It is important to note here that, while the two aren’t synonymous, school culture and climate do affect and influence each other.

School Culture

School culture can be observed through the same lens as culture in general. Just as a group of people belonging to the same culture share core beliefs, values, and assumptions, so does a school community. The common ideals and principles that are found in all members of a school community—students, parents, teachers, the principal—make school culture.

Since school culture influences the behaviors and practices of all members belonging to it, it can be positive or negative. Here’s how to distinguish them:

Positive School Culture Negative School Culture
Includes all stakeholders in decision-making processes Leaves out the majority of the community from important practices, like problem-solving
Nurtures trust and empathy among all members Results in mistrust between teachers and students, teachers and principals, parents and staff
Rewards risk-taking and encourages change Reflects fear of change and is generally stagnant
Fosters responsibility and accountability within the community Doesn’t teach responsibility and neglects to address misbehavior

Although school culture is largely related to what lies beneath the surface, there are elements of it that are visible. According to Edgar Schein’s culture model, there are three levels of culture:

  • Artifacts: Artifacts are synonymous with symbols, and they refer to the visible parts of a culture. In schools, artifacts that reflect its culture can be posters in hallways or classrooms, printed out mission and vision statements, or the physical tools educators use to teach
  • Espoused values: Values are the unseen but influential parts of school culture. They are what drives students, teachers, and the community to put in the good work every school day
  • Assumptions: Perhaps the most important element of school culture is the assumptions the community has about every member and aspect of that community. Educational leaders have to make an effort to dig up these underlying assumptions if they have it in mind to create a positive school culture

School Climate

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If school culture refers to everything that is found underneath the surface, then school climate is all about the visible, practical aspects of a school and how it’s run. A school culture influences its climate since school events, classroom activities, and the relationships within the community are shaped by all the mentioned aspects of school culture.

When you foster a positive school culture, then the climate in your school is such that your:

  • Students are motivated to learn and attend classes
  • Teachers are willing to participate in the active improvement of curricula and bring innovations in classroom practices
  • Stakeholders are invested in creating a safe learning environment  

In his article, Unpacking the Impact of School Culture, Jamie Prokopchuk states that “a positive school climate can only be built if all staff are on the same page, moving in the same direction.” We couldn’t agree more.

What Is the School Leader’s Role?

A school principal’s influence on how students, teachers, and parents feel in relation to the school cannot be exaggerated. Educational leadership is not unlike state leadership in that sense. What the person at the top is like, believes in, and practices impacts not only the attitude of the people they lead but also their:

  1. Motivation
  2. Beliefs
  3. Behavior

School Leaders Motivate

A key rule to successful leadership is leading by example. If you want to have a school climate in which every member of the community is willing to improve and learn, you need to show them that you believe in your school mission and are the first who will go out of their way to achieve it.

School Leaders Assert Beliefs

You cannot have a school community working on an established goal if everyone within it has their own set of values. Your job as a leader is to recognize what the beliefs you share with your institution or a school district are and then work on fostering those beliefs actively.

School Leaders Influence Behavior

When you show your students and teaching staff you care about their work, needs, and well-being, they will be motivated to grow and learn. Here also, you must lead by example and inspire your community to participate in activities.

What Makes a Competent School Leader?

By now, you have an idea of what the role of an educational leader is and how he or she can contribute to their school culture and climate in a way that fosters trust and development. The difference between a successful and incompetent school principal is what lies behind a positive or negative school climate.

Here’s a rundown of what makes a competent school leader compared to what doesn’t:

Effective Leader Weak Leader
Implements the practice of shared leadership Makes all the important decisions alone
Sets an example Doesn’t practice what they preach
Gets to know the school community well and engages in it  Dissociates themself from the school environment
Works to bring positive changes and encourages self-reflection in all members of the school Is stagnant and doesn’t reflect on the school vision

Do You Need a School Culture and Climate Plan?

Credit: William Iven

Since the role of a school leader is so critical to shaping positive school culture and climate, you might be wondering what you can do to bring influential changes. At the end of the day, leaders are only humans, which means you may not have all the answers right away. Acknowledging that takes you one step closer to effective leadership.

All major projects must first have a plan, and if transforming your school culture is what you have in mind, that is just what you want to do.

Here’s how you can create a school culture and climate plan and put it into action:

  1. Evaluate the existing culture
  2. Talk to your stakeholders
  3. Start working on a vision and mission for your school
  4. Monitor the progress
  5. Reflect on the changes you made

Analyze the Current Culture and Climate in Your School

You cannot change something if you don’t know what is wrong with it. Take some time to evaluate your school’s existing culture and climate before you sit down to talk with your stakeholders. Here are some aspects you might want to look into or get insight on:

  • Your current vision and mission and whether they are still relevant
  • Student participation and productivity
  • Teacher involvement
  • Extra-curricular activities and school events

Get the Community Working Together

Once you have assessed the current situation in your school or district, you can identify which areas need improvement. At this point, you want to put together a team and announce the need for immediate change.

You don’t want to make any massive decisions, like creating a new culture and climate plan on your own. People are often reluctant to let go of their routines, established perceptions, and preconceived values. Leaders need to be extra careful here to communicate the need for change to everyone who will be affected by it.

All of those questions you have gone over on your own regarding your existing school culture need to be addressed together with your team, and it includes:

  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Parents
  • Administrators

Time To Create Vision and Mission Statements

When the entire community acknowledges you need to work on a new set of goals—with ideals that might clash with the ones previously held by a majority of them—it’s time to begin working on your school’s vision and mission statements.

Your new school vision should embody the change you want to implement into your school culture and the specific image of a tomorrow you have for your community.

Even if you want to be in charge of this process, it’s critical to keep working in a team. Ask your students and educators where they see your school a year or a decade from now. Get to know what drives them to work towards a better tomorrow. Listen to their needs and their beliefs before you get to a shared goal.

How Are You Going To Monitor the Progress?

Your school’s vision and mission are going to be the main ingredients of your plan to transform your school’s culture and climate. If you leave them to gather dust once you create them, the entire action-taking will be futile.

You need to come up with a way to monitor the progress of every member within your school community with regards to your culture and climate plan.

NASSP’s CASE Comprehensive Assessment of School Environment model is a great tool to evaluate where you stand in terms of the vision you have created for your school. You should monitor everyone’s progress and make notes on:

  • Your leadership practices
  • Classroom activities
  • Staff and student productivity
  • Whether the established values and principles are adhered to

Practice Reflection

Once you have your progress report, you don’t want to leave it lying around or keep it to yourself only. Distribute the data you gathered to everyone you worked with when you created your school’s vision and mission. This will not only remind your teachers and students of the goals you set together but also motivate them to reflect on their progress and keep working towards realizing that vision.

More Characteristics of an Effective Educational Leader

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Even though getting your community to participate in decision-making processes and activities that foster the envisioned school culture is paramount, it is the school leader who has the biggest responsibility to oversee the progress and bring about change.

Highly effective leaders—in any profession but particularly in education—know that self-assessment and self-improvement are keys to strong and successful leadership.

If you want to have a positive school climate that is safe, inspiring, and conducive to learning, you can employ the following strategies in your leadership style:

  1. Learn to accept responsibility
  2. Sharpen your networking skills
  3. Split the power
  4. Reward your community with incentives
  5. Hone your leadership skills continually

Acknowledge Your Role as a Leader and Take Responsibility

Integral to your leadership style is what you are like as a person, what your work ethic is, and what values you cherish personally. As a leader, all aspects of your personality are going to influence your school unit—which is why your first step to effective leadership is introspection. How you behave must reflect the change you wish to bring to your school culture and climate.

Another meaningful factor in accepting your role as a leader entirely is being eager to take responsibility for everything that is going on in your school.

Make Sure Your School Is Well-Connected

Any leader knows their power lies with their connections. When it comes to education, the networking endeavors should not be embarked on with the sole purpose of making a profit but empowering the large community to grow and adapt to the fast-paced changes of the modern world.

This might mean that your school requires outside help, new collaborations, or even subsidiaries. An effective school leader will seek out opportunities anywhere and ensure their school is equipped with all the necessary tools the students, teaching staff, and administrators may need.

Realize Shared Leadership Works to Your Advantage

In their article about shared leadership, William Hughes and Terry Pickeral argue that; “in order for safe, equitable, engaging and high-quality school climates to become the norm in American schools, schools must encourage, support, and reward shared leadership.” This means that you need to go beyond putting together a team to help you with the school vision and involve all members of your school community in every aspect of your leadership.

When you make sure that students, teachers, and administrators are working together with you on important matters, you create an environment that fosters autonomy, team spirit, accountability, and student-centered learning.

Make Sure Your Community Knows You Value Them

An important aspect of motivating everyone in your school community to keep working towards your goals is acknowledging their efforts with rewards. Whether it be a special field trip for students, raised salary for teachers, or an honorary school event, think of the ways you can make your shareholders see you have noticed their work and appreciate it.

Don’t Forget To Work on Yourself Too

Just as you wish to reward the hard work of parents, teachers, students, and administrators, so you want to ensure you have given yourself credit for your own efforts. More importantly, you want to constantly evaluate your leadership style, practices, and progress as a school principal.

Encourage feedback in your community and open yourself up to advice and constructive criticism. Find out what it is that you do that motivates teachers and students to want to come to school, implement innovations in classroom activities, and participate actively in creating the school culture you envisioned. Likewise, learn if your stakeholders appreciate your approach to leadership and think whether and how you can improve it.

Are You Ready for Big Changes in Education?

The mere fact you’ve read a piece on school climate and culture and how they need to be reshaped to fit the 21-century world tells us you’re on board with the mission to contribute to changing American education.

It’s time everyone involved in educational institutions stepped out with innovative ideas to reimagine high schools. The goal is crystal clear—to give students the tools, material, and support they need to carve their paths to their chosen careers in the modern, ever-shifting world.