Transforming School Culture: From Traditional Schools to Professional Learning Communities 

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Structural change that is not supported by the cultural change will eventually be overwhelmed by the culture, for it is in the culture that the organization finds meaning and stability.”—Phil Schlechty

When approaching the issue of reimagining and shaping school culture, educational leaders often get caught up in structural changes and devote little to no attention to initiating cultural shifts. Changing policies, programs, and procedures is not enough to transform a traditional school into a professional learning community

To achieve that, school leaders need to write a new mission statement, launch a new strategic plan, and change the staff schedule. These reorganizational steps are nothing short of feeble if they do not allow the underlying concepts of cultural transformation to shine through.

School leaders need to focus on changing the habits, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations of their educators because these elements define a school culture and hinder its transformation by remaining static. 

Turning a High School Into a Professional Learning Community

High schools that have transformed their culture successfully based the endeavors on different approaches. Despite their differences, they all reflect three primary cultural shifts:

  1. Adjusted focus
  2. Collaborative approach
  3. Transformed fundamental purpose

Adjusted Focus

Educators working in professional learning communities focus on results and outcomes instead of inputs. By shifting their focus, high school teachers can modify their professional practice regularly based on the evidence of student learning. Focusing on results also allows educators to devote more time and attention to those students who need more time and support to learn. 

A Collaborative Approach  

Although most traditional schools have their teachers working in isolation, there is no scientific evidence that supports that approach as an effective strategy for improving student learning. 

Teachers in professional learning communities work in high-performance teams to ensure the best possible educational practices. Having educators work collaboratively can drastically affect the school culture, alleviate tension, and improve the overall wellbeing of the school community.

A Transformed Fundamental Purpose 

Professional learning communities transfer their focus from teaching to learning. This cultural shift is of seismic proportions because it affects the fundamental purpose of a high school. When learning becomes the primary goal of education, school values and approaches to teaching change drastically for the better. 

Seven Principles of Efficient Professional Learning Communities

Transforming school culture and improving high school educational practices can only be done through hard work and dedication. The most efficient professional learning communities focus on:

Principle Overview

Student learning

Efficient professional learning communities make student learning their primary goal
Instructional leadership Successful school leaders foster teaching and learning
Collective responsibility All staff members contribute to a student’s academic success in equal measure

Evidence-driven practices

Instructional practices have to be based on scientific evidence

Continuous improvement

Educators have to assess their instructional methods and adjust their practices accordingly

Teacher learning

Teachers have to learn from each other continuously

Regional support

Community experts need to be involved in the process of improving a school’s educational system

Transforming School Culture: How To Overcome Staff Division

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For a high school to reach new educational heights, staff division has to become a thing of the past

A divisive school community hinders innovation, professional learning, and student achievement. That is why school leaders need to devote a lot of attention to transforming toxic environments into positive ones. 

Teacher roles in professional learning communities are more complex than they are in traditional high schools, mainly because they demand setting aside old, unwieldy habits that exclude teacher collaboration and the exchange of knowledge. 

Progressive and positive school cultures confront educators with the limitations of their knowledge and demand that they work hand in hand to create the best possible educational practice that focuses on student achievement.

Teachers have to rely on one another to evolve as learning facilitators. Here are a few suggestions that high school teachers can follow to elevate their professional learning:

  • Become a member of a professional organization for educators
  • Purchase or borrow educational books each month and spend at least 20 minutes every night studying them
  • Stay up to date with the latest developments in their field by subscribing to educational periodicals
  • Read an article from a scholarly journal each week and share it with their colleagues

Why Is Teacher Collaboration So Important? 

Professional learning communities, unlike traditional high schools, operate under the assumption that just like “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a communal teacher effort to teach a student how to learn and maximize his or her potential.

Each staff member is treated equally within the community and considered to have sufficient knowledge and skills to contribute to developing the best possible educational program. 

The three main reasons why working together is essential for efficient student learning are:

  • Teachers who collaborate with one another gain access to expanded resources that make them more efficient 
  • Students can learn better if they are presented with clear and consistent messages about the methods and objectives of learning
  • A community of teachers who share the same educational practices actively contributes to the success and productivity of the whole school

Transforming School Culture by Creating a Professional Community

Teachers and other staff members have to come together and create a school-based professional community that shifts the focus from bureaucratic rules to the teacher’s norms of professional duty and behavior. Teachers are role models for learning, and student learning has to be at the forefront of their professional practices. 

To create a school-based professional community, school leaders have to ensure that the following requirements are met:

Condition Overview
Socialization procedures High schools need to devise adequate mechanisms for passing along the school’s vision to newly recruited teachers. New teachers have to feel like they are an important part of a large collective
Supportive environment Teachers need to feel supported by their community when they are expanding their knowledge about the profession
Mutual trust and respect Teachers need to feel respected within their school community. A shared sense of trust, loyalty, and respect increases professional commitment and willingness to cooperate 
Places of physical proximity High schools can increase the level of communication and cooperation between the teachers by creating a team planning room where educators can gather and discuss their practices. Adopting the “open door” policy can also build a stronger sense of school community
Teacher autonomy and empowerment Teachers who are free to make decisions about their work show a greater sense of responsibility for their students’ learning outcomes
Supportive and nurturing leadership School culture can be transformed successfully only through supportive and nurturing leadership. School leaders have to set the tone for change and innovation by keeping the focus on collaboration, shared purpose, and continuous improvement

Seven Habits of Transformed School Cultures

Professional learning communities can be easily distinguished from traditional high schools by paying attention to their habits. Transformed school cultures always:

  1. Put organizational learning in front of individual learning
  2. Realize the needs of their students, aspirations of their teachers, and goals of their schools
  3. Have administrations that provide structures and schedules for maintaining organizational learning 
  4. Value care and concern for each other in addition to focusing on goals and productivity
  5. Maintain a climate of democratic participation that stimulates all participants to reach their goals
  6. Have a common purpose around which the community is built that ultimately benefits the students 
  7. Nurture the factors that make student and teacher growth and development possible

The Principal’s Role in Transforming School Culture

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While teachers are vital for creating a professional learning community, principals are the governing force behind the school’s cultural transformation. 

Principals are in charge of developing and sustaining a supportive and stimulating environment in which teachers and students can thrive.

Although there is not a single type of principal that is best suited for transforming school culture, it is worth knowing that all successful principals used the following strategies when they set their schools on course to a positive change:

  1. Leading by example
  2. Building strong relationships and promoting teamwork
  3. Creating learning opportunities for teachers
  4. Inviting teachers into the decision-making process
  5. Creating a common purpose

Leading by Example

To build a reliable and sustainable professional learning community, successful principals create learning opportunities for their staff, share knowledge with them, and value their expertise. Through such behavior, they get to lead by example and help build a more collaborative and respectful school community.  

When teachers are treated in such a supportive way, transforming a school culture from an individual to a collaborative one becomes effortless. 

Building Strong Relationships and Promoting Teamwork

When it comes to building relationships with other staff members, successful principals exemplify what it means to trust, support, and encourage others. 

Educators who receive support and respect from the principal find it easier to support their peers and collectively work on creating the best possible educational program for their schools. 

To nurture the relationships within the school community, principals need to continually rely on various communication methods, such as newsletters, lunchroom sharing, and daily announcements. 

Because they know how essential teamwork is, successful principals encourage teachers to work in groups and overcome the initial awkwardness of collaborative endeavors

Educators are stimulated to use their personal styles and express their creativity when working in groups, as well as take part in implementing new strategies and transforming school culture. Efficient teamwork has to entail both collaboration and an open-mind towards personal expression. 

Creating Learning Opportunities for Teachers

Successful principals organize gatherings for all staff members to focus on group learning. Teachers are encouraged to research, synthesize, and discuss their findings on the topic of school operations.  

These gatherings often include formal presentations and discussions with the school’s staff as they aim to spark genuine enthusiasm for collective learning within the school community. 

Inviting Teachers Into the Decision-Making Process

Successful principals create organizational structures that encourage and support staff members to participate in making decisions. Most of the time, these structures appear in the form of committees in charge of operations and instructions.

Sometimes, principals have to accept the decisions brought forth by the staff even if they themselves do not agree with them. These acts of trust improve the staff’s willingness to engage in the community and take additional responsibilities for the school. 

Creating a Common Purpose

Principals lead their staff to work with a common purpose—student achievement. All staff members have to identify the vision for both the school and the students and turn that vision into reality through dedicated work. 

This common purpose governs the school’s decision-making process and facilitates problem-solving among the staff members. 

Benefits of Transforming School Culture: Why Are Professional Learning Communities Better Than Traditional High Schools?

Unlike traditional high schools, professional learning communities foster both teacher and student growth

Although changing a school’s cultural landscape demands additional extracurricular engagement by the staff, when carried out right, the whole school community gets to reap the benefits!

Professional learning communities improve teaching and learning by:

  • Allowing teachers to reflect on ideas
  • Building stronger relationships between the staff
  • Allowing teachers to improve teaching and learning directly 
  • Helping educators stay on top of new technologies and research

The Power of Reflection

Professional learning communities allow educators to learn from each other. This type of knowledge exchange adds more purpose and value to the end result, which is a better educational system that puts student success first. 

Exchanging ideas and knowledge encourages self-reflection among educators, causing them to adjust and better their teaching practices.

Building a Communal Spirit

Transformed school cultures work on turning all staff members into community leaders by highlighting their strengths and respecting their individual opinions

To enhance community cohesion, professional learning communities hold weekly meetings because they help generate and strengthen bonds between team members. 

School leaders start these meetings by defining roles and relationships of the staff members. Each staff member has its expertise, thus the leader defines his or her role in relation to it. 

Enhancing the strengths of staff members through expertise-specific roles is an essential part of being a school leader, as it helps build a greater sense of trust within the community.

Improved Teaching and Learning

To create a better learning environment, schools have to improve communication between their staff members.

Professional learning communities give teachers an opportunity to share ideas, opinions, and knowledge on a weekly basis, allowing them to experience a greater sense of responsibility for what is going on in the classroom. 

Teachers get to reflect on their practices, share student progress, and take ownership of every student’s education when data is being shared across all grade levels. 

Staying on Top of New Technologies and Research

Professional learning communities stimulate teacher communication beyond the classroom walls and state boundaries

Exchanging ideas and knowledge on social media and digital platforms opens countless opportunities for professional development that leave a significant mark on the educational system on the whole. Educators get a chance to communicate with their peers from other countries and gain insight into new researches and technologies that have proven effective in the classroom. 

The Four Pillars of Building Positive School Cultures

High schools that have successfully managed to abandon the traditional way of schooling have all focused on creating a safe school environment in which the whole community can thrive. 

That being said, positive school culture can only be built through a collaborative effort of the entire school community. 

According to Research Gate, positive school culture is centered around the following four pillars:

  1. Loyalty and commitment
  2. Transparency and efficiency 
  3. Trust
  4. Teamwork

Loyalty and Commitment

Positive relationships are the backbone of thriving high schools. Having a school environment full of highly educated staff members that share values and interests generates a loyal workforce. When teachers respect and trust each other, they are motivated to share their knowledge and improve their teaching practices. 

Transparency and Efficiency

The more teachers collaborate, the more their actions and decision making become transparent. A transparent school culture enables parents and stakeholders to understand what is going on behind the classroom walls better. 

The school staff becomes more efficient when it is made to work in teams because it gets to assess learning, analyze data, revise instructions, and evaluate the impact of individual teaching practices. 


Trust is essential for building a positive high school culture. When there is a lack of trust between the staff members, they are more likely to get disengaged from their work, experience low morale, and show a decreased commitment to the organization. School leaders have to be dedicated to fostering strong and healthy relationships between their teachers in order to create an engaged and high-performing workforce.


High school staff members have to work together to accomplish their tasks efficiently. A school is not made or defined by an individual but rather by a highly-dedicated and engaged team. To create a successful team, a group of individuals that share the same preferences and attitudes towards teaching, have to come together to achieve a mutual goal—improved student achievement.

Collaboration Lies at the Heart of Transformation

Our high school educational system remains static despite the fact that our lives have drastically changed over the past few decades. New technologies and ways of living call for a major shift in the way we approach teaching and learning. 

Instead of refusing to change, school leaders have to take on the responsibility of initiating a cultural change within their educational community and bring together teachers that are willing to collaborate.

We are in desperate need of a system that puts student achievement above all else. A system that zeroes in on community and learning. We are in urgent need of a system that does not shy away from change.

Professional learning communities have proven that transforming school culture is possible and necessary. If you have a novel idea or an interesting story about transforming school culture to share, send it to us, and we will share it on our blog.