Building and Sustaining a Positive School Culture

Authors: Whitnee Grant, Brandon Ross, Deborah Bennett, Tiffany Hall, Kelly Morse and Adrian Goodman

As we approach the end of a year in education amidst a global pandemic, educators across the country have felt the impact of a school’s culture and climate on the development of the whole child, whether it be positive or negative. Years of research support what many have learned through first-hand experience this past year. Even amid uncertainty and trauma, teachers and students thrive when healthy and positive school culture and climate are present. The process of building and sustaining a positive school culture does not require an expensive pre-packaged program or complex systems and rules. In his 2006 article, School Culture: “The Hidden Curriculum”, Craig D. Jerald argues that a school’s culture stems from a co-constructed mission, vision, and values, but whether that culture is healthy and strong or weak and negative depends on the actions, rituals, ceremonies and traditions that follow. South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leaders would like to share a few practical actions, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions that we have found essential to building and sustaining a positive school culture.

Relationships With and Among Students

A positive school culture and climate is one in which students are seen as the purpose, not the problem. A culture of caring and connection means all stakeholders feel seen, valued, and heard. Students who feel safe to take risks, receive feedback, and make mistakes are more motivated to explore, learn, and, in turn, make positive contributions back to the school culture and climate. There are a few simple things that go a long way in creating and sustaining relationships with students:

  • Believe that all students can achieve and demonstrate those positive expectations

  • Greet each student by name each morning

  • Establish a class meeting or social circle to give students time to share celebrations, concerns, or struggles that they are having and take time to respond to students who share

  • Create routines and rituals that encourage all students to participate and contribute to conversations or collaborations equitably

  • Model genuine active listening and set active listening as the expectation

  • Take time to learn student interests, backgrounds, family traditions, and cultures

  • Use what you know about students to integrate and validate their interests, family traditions, and cultures into all forms of academic, social, and emotional learning

  • Create rituals that celebrate students who take a risk or learn from a mistake - for example, everyone snaps the moment someone states that they learned from a mistake

  • Model and celebrate kindness and forgiveness

  • Provide clear behavior expectations and boundaries so students feel safe and confident

  • Allow and celebrate individual expression through choice

Relationships with Faculty and Staff

In the midst of a pandemic, instructional models in districts, states, and nations are continually changing. A constant in all of this change is the need to feel valued now probably more than ever. In the fall, our faculty completed a languages of appreciation survey to determine how we all like to feel appreciated. It was a friendly reminder that although I enjoy words of affirmation, my peers like acts of service, quality time, and tangible gifts. For school-purposes, we decided to remove the option of physical touch. It is important, whether you complete a languages of appreciation survey or not, that you complete some kind of needs assessment to know how to fill the emotional bank accounts of those around you. Once you know how those around you feel valued, you can create a positive school culture by being mindful of faculty members’ “languages.” You can also join a social media group to get lots of ideas of how to speak all of the languages. Just like we need to meet the needs of the whole child, we must meet the components of the whole teacher: healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Three Simple Ways to Build Positive Culture:

  1. Complete a value needs assessment with Faculty/Staff (ie, Languages of Appreciation) - Here is a quick and free Appreciations Quiz.

  2. Share the results schoolwide

  3. Create weekly, monthly, and yearly opportunities to address these needs

A sense of community is another way to build positive school culture, whether it is in the classroom or school-wide. A powerful way to build community is through empowering teacher leadership. In our school, we have action teams (physical environment, empowering instruction, social emotional learning, direct lessons, leadership roles, new and ongoing staff learning, and family and community partnerships) where everyone in the school serves. Staff members choose their teams based on passions; then, set goals, action steps, and celebrate when meeting their goals. These teams drive our spending and School Renewal Plan, which means teachers are making the decisions to execute the mission and vision of the school. Their ownership of who we are creates a sense of pride.

Communication is critical in positive school culture. Although it seems minor, just knowing what is going on in a building is a morale boost. How can you do this? Leaders, whether the principal, grade level chairs, or department heads, should share upcoming events, deadlines, and celebrations. I like a SMORE newsletter, but you can do what fits your school. People feel secure when they know what to expect while uncertainty builds insecurity and lack of trust.

We must remember that communication is not just newsletters and emails. One of the easiest ways to communicate is through surveys, and they give everyone a voice. Something as simple as surveying the staff on the time they would like to have an upcoming speaker helps to give a voice to all staff members and creates inclusiveness. Surveys also allow feedback on recent professional development, processes, and procedures, which allows leaders to make changes to better meet the needs of students and faculty/staff; thereby, increasing a positive environment. This makes people feel heard, and when they feel heard, they feel valued.

If you want to have a positive culture, make sure to focus on the three C’s: Caring, Collaboration, and Communication.

Relationships with Parents and the Community

Fortunately, as educators, we have come to recognize the significance of building relationships with students, but how powerful would it be if we put an equal effort into building relationships with parents? This school year, perhaps more than any other, parent and community involvement have been essential to building and sustaining a positive school culture. With so many variations in the classroom environment, from virtual, to hybrid, to face-to-face, parents are the constants that can ensure students do not get lost in the shuffle of a changing classroom environment. When parents are actively involved, everybody wins. We can’t afford to make excuses for not reaching out to parents any longer; they are our secret tool! Research shows that the amount of teacher/parent involvement directly impacts how parents view school, which in turn directly impacts how the student views school. In the 2020 article “Parental Involvement is Key to Student Success” by Grace Chen, the author explains that parent involvement can be linked not only to better student performance, but also to better student behavior, better student reading skills, and even better teacher morale. Therefore, parental involvement can not only help sustain a positive school culture, but can also help build one.

How can we build and sustain positive parent involvement? The key is frequent, positive interaction and contact with parents. Teachers must initiate positive interactions by initiating early two-way communication where the teacher also sets expectations of the student to the parent. Last year at the beginning of the pandemic, our district set the expectation that while students were learning from home, teachers should make contact with the parents once weekly. The first contact was a phone call; parents needed to hear a voice. Later, weekly interactions also included email or text. I thought parents might feel bothered by my weekly contact, but no parent was negative; all parents were appreciative of my efforts to keep parents informed, and we became a team as we helped the student through the remainder of the year. Weekly one-to-one communication might be difficult to juggle long term, but even scheduling time for once-a-month conversations with parents will go a long way in building and sustaining a positive culture. Research shows that the higher the parent/teacher interaction, the better student performance. Unfortunately, research also suggests that the prevalence of teacher/ parent interaction decreases among students of lower-income, which could contribute to underperformance. Reaching out to parents gives them an opportunity to be part of their child’s education, and usually once the parent relationship is established, the parent becomes a vital tool in helping students succeed.

Maintaining a Positive School Culture

Once a vision is established and expectations are understood, the school culture is maintained through rituals, ceremonies, and traditions based on feedback and praise. Here are several rituals, ceremonies, and traditions that provide effective feedback and praise for all stakeholders:

  • Praise effort and actions that reflect expectations

  • Highlight positive attitudes and behaviors

  • Personalize what motivates staff and students

Schools need to praise appropriately and celebrate victories, large and small. Recognition is one way in which our school’s community feels valued. As a school leader or teacher, many different ways have been successful. Handwritten thank you cards, authentic certificates, a bulletin board, phone call/email home, or a school or class newsletter are different ways to recognize students and/or staff and make them feel appreciated. The power of praise in creating a positive school culture indicates approval and informs the staff/students about how the praised performance or behavior conforms to school expectations. Supplying everyone with positive feedback and showing them that you care speaks to building relationships and the investment in people.

When building and maintaining a positive school culture, the leadership team must remain positive in order to model the desired behavior and create a positive school culture. Several leadership experts including Jon Gordon, Jane Purdue, and Gordon Tredgold promote the C’s of positive leadership.

  • Culture - Culture is the most important C and provides the foundation for the other C’s. It starts from the top down and the positive leadership team must be united and crystal clear on shared beliefs, values and expectations.

  • Character - A positive leadership team must model great character. The positive leader is credible, ethical, transparent and trustworthy. The positive leader is inclusive and advocates for those in his care.

  • Caring - Positive leaders need to take care of those who are under their leadership. In order to do this, they must build relationships to understand the needs and limitations of the staff.

  • Commitment- A leadership team’s commitment to the school’s vision and action plan must be filled with service and sacrifice.

  • Consistency - Positive leaders are consistent in their pursuit to be premier and in how they treat everyone. When a leader is consistent, it helps build trust.

  • Courage - An inclusive leader who has courage takes a stand for what’s good and what’s right, even if doing so is unpopular.

  • Communication - The positive leadership team communicates a united, clear, concise, focused message based on the vision. They listen to stakeholders to monitor the pulse of the school, provide voice, and increase involvement and trust.

  • Connection - A positive leader intentionally makes the time to meaningfully connect with others. He is supportive and appreciative and knows when to recognize, criticize, celebrate, and say thank you.

  • Coaching - A positive leader mentors other leaders and provides opportunities to learn in a safe environment where mentees can learn from their failures.


Conclusion


This past year has brought many unique challenges, but times of change and uncertainty are not isolated to a pandemic. All stakeholders can continue to thrive amidst times of crisis or chaos when they are safe, valued, and supported within a positive school culture. A school’s culture doesn’t magically appear because a vision is established. A positive school culture requires actions, rituals, ceremonies, and traditions that build and sustain that vision through relationships and feedback.


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