Shaping School Culture — The Key Element for Creating a Successful High School

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There is something impalpable and inexplicable about the school we attend or work in — a permeating feeling that we take with us and remember most profoundly about it. Such a pervasive — and highly elusive — feeling is what we may describe as school culture.

How a school makes its students, teachers, leaders, and everyone else in its broader community feel is an instrumental — yet often disregarded — feature that is in close correlation with its success as an educational institution. The school culture is what influences everything that goes on inside a school — how students feel about attending their classes and how much they learn, the staff’s attitude toward their work and career development, how the leaders and the community work together to make the school an even better place for future generations of learners.

A high school is more than just brick-and-mortar walls — it is an amalgamation of its students, its leaders, and the local community. There are innumerable elements that make up the school culture — all relevant in their own right — but ultimately, everything revolves around the people that keep the school rolling.

Education is currently the central civil rights issue in America, and for a change to take place in the high school system in our country, everyone must assume their roles and contribute to the cause. Shaping school culture is an ideal starting point for rethinking American education.

What Is School Culture

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School culture  encompasses the norms, rules, beliefs, traditions, values, standards, and rituals that the school has adopted over the course of its existence by collaborating, confronting issues, and solving problems. It is a set of understood expectations of all stakeholders, which shapes the way they behave in the school, as well as how they think and feel about it. 

Culture determines how the pupils and staff are expected to behave and dress, influences the relationships that exist among the teachers and learners, and affects the attitudes the students have toward learning and education. It affects the orderliness of the school’s facilities and establishes the school’s standpoint on the cultural, social, linguistic, ethnic, and racial diversity.

Every school has its unique climate and culture that are identified, shaped, and nurtured by everyone involved in the school’s organization, from the students and parents to educators and the principal. 

Broadly speaking, a school’s culture can be described as positive and negative. In that sense, it determines how successfully (or unsuccessfully) the school will perform.

The positive school culture promotes professional development and work satisfaction, improves morale, and is conducive to and assumes responsibility for student learning. In contrast, you will recognize the negative school culture by the lack of motivation and ambition for both teaching and learning, the shortage of peer collaboration, and a general unacceptance of change and innovation.

Positive School Culture

Negative School Culture

  • Recognizes and rewards the individual achievements of students and staff members 
  • Nurtures open and respectful relationships across the school’s organizational levels
  • Aids collegial and collaborative staff relationships
  • Inspires school leaders to model proper behavior and attitude
  • Creates learning opportunities instead of focusing on student mistakes and shortcomings
  • Accentuates equity among students, taking into consideration their social, financial, racial, or ethnic backgrounds
  • Promotes high academic standards and expectations that a majority of students can meet
  • Inspires the students and the community to contribute to the school’s goals and make it a better place
  • Lacks the sense of unity and a shared vision among its members
  • Causes the staff to become inert, passive, complacent, resigned to old practices, and entrenched in their methods
  • Puts responsibility on the students and “blames” them for their unsatisfactory academic results
  • Discourages staff collaboration
  • Is not conducive to life-long learning and development
  • Breeds hostility and competitiveness among the staff
  • Creates an environment resilient to change that makes a mockery of the teachers who are interested in the students’ progress and who strive to bring innovative ideas and teaching methods to the table
  • Creates disinterested students who see high school as an unnecessary evil and are more likely to drop out

The Importance of School Culture

Nurturing a healthy school culture is the foundation of any school’s progress and success. If a high school has a positive culture, the teachers will perform their jobs gladly and dutifully, the students will thrive academically and as individuals, and the community will be that much richer by knowing that its youth is getting a proper start at adult life.

Maintaining a positive school culture is essential for several other reasons:

  1. Culture improves morale and fosters compliance. If your school’s staff are supported by the school’s management and work in a pleasant environment, alongside colleagues they get along with, they are more likely to pour their hearts into their work and help take the school to the next level. The same can be said of the students — if they enjoy coming to school and feel satisfied by their improvement, they will exhibit fewer disciplinary issues and will adopt a healthier attitude to education on the whole.
  2. Culture promotes better academic outcomes. In line with the point above, the students who are motivated to come to school because they feel at ease being there are more likely to participate in classes, give and receive feedback, demonstrate an interest in and a better understanding of the subject matter, and ultimately, achieve better academic results.
  3. Culture focuses on educational design and goal-setting. School leaders who share the same vision and core values will work in unison on setting and achieving the school’s educational goals. They will also successfully shape the instructional framework of the school, devising an effective curriculum that serves to better prepare students for college, career, and life.
  4. Culture motivates instructors and improves teaching methods. Teachers who work in a healthy school environment are more open to developing in their roles and implementing innovative teaching methods to aid the students’ learning.
  5. Culture inspires a sense of unity and a shared purpose. Faculty members who are unified by a shared goal will effectively work together to challenge difficulties, address critical issues, and make decisions for the benefit of the school and its learners.

The Elements of School Culture

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Deal and Peterson, in their book “Shaping School Culture,” explain that “school culture fosters improvement, collaborative decision-making, professional development, and staff and student learning.” 

School culture is undoubtedly vital for teacher motivation, student performance, and school success on multiple other levels. Nevertheless, it is a concept that is difficult to explain and define. Due to its intangible nature, it often happens that shaping school culture gets disregarded as a lesser priority in comparison to achieving more concrete goals, such as graduation exam results and other academic test scores.

However, the school’s culture and its performance — including and most importantly, student outcomes — are closely linked together and highly dependent on one another. To better understand the intricacies of the school culture, we need to check the elements it consists of:

  • Connections and interactions
  • Core beliefs and behaviors
  • School vision and mission
  • Actions and cultural changes
  • History and symbols

Connections and Interactions

Communication within an organization reinforces its members’ understanding of the goals set, the tools and resources available, and the methods intended to achieve those goals. If all stakeholders in a school collaborate, they will be aligned to the same purpose and have a similar attitude to problem-solving. A strong culture sees school leaders communicating directly with other school members, including instructors, administration, students, and parents, all of whom also communicate with each other. 

Core Beliefs and Behaviors

School leaders, counselors, administration, and instructors have to communicate clearly what the core values of the institution are and how all members are expected to foster them. The staff, students, their families, and the entire community need to be familiar with and share those core beliefs in order to act in accordance with them.

School Vision and Mission

The school’s mission and vision declarations are two essential elements of its culture. It often happens that leaders set their own goals and ideas for the school and try to impose them on other members with little success. Instead, all levels within the school’s organization — including the staff and the local community — should be involved in crafting the school mission and vision statements. That way, all stakeholders will be personally invested in making the school’s goals a reality, thus creating a strong, positive, and collaborative school culture.

Actions and Cultural Changes

Individuals on all levels of the organization must be encouraged to not only implement cultural changes proposed by the leadership but to take actions and initiate changes themselves. In a weak school culture, the members do not collaborate to learn new skills or extend on the old ones through peer review. As a result, they are unfamiliar with the organizational goals and are unlikely to take action and achieve them.

History and Symbols

The more the school members collaborate, the more history they will have among them. And the more results they achieve, the more tradition they will make. The role of the school leaders doesn’t end with inspiring and facilitating change — they are responsible for showcasing and emphasizing achievements and the symbols that represent them. Regardless of what the symbols are — awards, plaques, sports trophies, the school’s new logo, or a brand new uniform design — they are bound to instill a sense of a positive, communal culture within the school’s microcosm.

The Steps to Shaping a Positive School Culture

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You may grasp the meaning and relevance of the positive school culture to perfection but are not quite sure how to foster it in your school’s community. Here are some of the steps that we identified as instrumental for creating welcoming and rewarding atmosphere in schools:

  1. Realizing the twofold role of the school’s principal 
  2. Crafting the vision and mission statements
  3. Inspiring a positive attitude to progress
  4. Establishing rituals and traditions

The Role of the Principal

One of the key elements for promoting a positive school culture is realizing the influence the principal harbors — they are the person everyone looks to for instruction, model, and assessment. In essence, the principal needs to play a “bifocal role” — to take care of day-to-day school management and assume a symbolic leadership stance. 

Headmasters are the so-called “change agents” — their focus should be on defining, instilling, and implementing the school’s values by example. If they succeed in being role models as well as organizational figures, they will give a deeper structure to the overall system of the school, ultimately resulting in better student outcomes, according to this research.

Writing the Vision and Mission Statements

We’ve already identified the school’s vision and mission as instrumental to its overall culture. These are the public declarations that set forth the institution’s long-term goals and the steps the school is taking to achieve those goals.

The crafting of these documents is a laborious and time-consuming task. They need to be concise enough to be memorable but detailed enough to include all the core values the school stands to promote. Most importantly, the mission and vision have to be accurate in reflecting the needs and aspirations of the community on the whole.

The entire community should be involved in drafting the school’s mission and vision. Various members of the community will provide different feedback to help improve the message that is to be delivered. The community will, in turn, be more invested in the school’s goal-achieving since they were an instrumental part in setting them.

A Positive Attitude to Progress

Another powerful tool for nurturing a positive school culture is giving credit where it is due. It is up to the school leaders to recognize the individual achievements of the staff and the students, to give public praise, and set up a reward system for exceptional accomplishments.

Valuing and promoting progress will show that the school has a healthy support system. That sort of a positive culture is an incredible driving force not only for the students and their further academic achievements but also for the school personnel as it has shown to increase their retention rates.

Rituals and Traditions

To better enforce your school’s cultural vision, you need to associate it with something tangible. Invite the students and the staff to come up with ways to make the school’s vision evident inside the school walls and beyond. Think in terms of:

  • Mottos
  • Symbolic school memorabilia
  • Special traditions and festivities
  • The interior decor
  • A monthly school newsletter or a blog 

Recognizing a Toxic School Culture 

While every school leader strives to promote a positive school environment, sometimes, toxic elements may appear where one least expects them. Here are some of the hallmarks of a toxic school culture that are usually among the first to arise:

  1. Fragmented, disconnected staff without a sense of community
  2. The lack of collaboration and progress on the school employee level
  3. The disagreement between instructors and parents
  4. Emphasis placed on the student’s inability to learn rather than the teacher’s inability to teach
  5. Staff conflicts
  6. Prevalence of negative statements, with a strong emphasis on failures instead of on achievements
  7. Most of the conversation between school members happens during leisure time outside of work instead of in faculty meetings

To correct a toxic culture and hinder its further implications, the school leaders must first identify the key areas in need of improvement. While those are being addressed, a strong emphasis must be put on the steps for inspiring a positive, healthy school culture detailed above.

Leaders must also use all available resources that could help in improving the problematic attitudes. Here are some that can be used to get a better grasp of the issues that can lead to the toxic school culture and how to improve it.

Additional Resources

Why They Matter

Why Do Good Teachers Leave?

An innovative and interesting explanation of why teacher retention is a real issue

Preparing Students for the Workplaces of the Future

The need for an educational reform explained

Equity in the 21st Century

Educational experts talk about why it is essential that equity drives decision-making on the school and district levels

School Mission and Culture

A detailed account on why every school needs a clear-cut mission

School Mission and Culture Expert Series

A podcast in which education innovators speak about the importance of having a clear mission and how it promotes a healthy school culture

Rethinking High School Education

High schools across the U.S. remained pretty much the same for the last 100 years, while the career choices and the demands of the global employment market transformed many times over during the same period. Adolescence has been shown to be a critical phase for cognitive development, the age at which students are at their most creative — when they take special interests in the world around them and present constructive ideas on how to improve it.

It is high time American high schools were reimagined into more productive, inspiring, and innovative institutions that can help their students prosper in high school, college, career, and beyond. That change starts with a positive school culture that promotes innovation and a forward-looking approach to education.

Do you have some high school culture wisdom to impart?

Join our cause and help us #RethinkHighSchool together. Share the story of your school’s culture with us by writing an informative piece on the subject. Tell us what it is that makes your school a stellar success, and we will publish your story on our blog. 

Inspire others to take your lead and change the face of the American educational system with us!

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