How do you want teachers and students to feel when they walk into school every morning?

Are your teachers dreading coming to work in the morning? Do students walk into the building with their heads down, trying not to interact with others?

Or are your teachers excited, starting each class with enthusiasm? Do you hear laughter in the hallways when students are coming in? Having a positive school culture has an impact, not just on the attitudes of students and teachers, but on the entire learning experience.

You, as a school leader, have a vital role in creating a positive school culture.

How so?

What is ‘school culture’?

Culture, ethos, atmosphere, climate…

What do these words mean for your school?

Basically, a school culture consists of the underlying influences and attitudes within the school — based on the norms, traditions and beliefs of the staff and students.

How important is school culture? In short, the prevailing atmosphere in your school will affect everything that goes on inside its walls.

This goes beyond the student body: it also involves how teachers interact with each other, their students, and the parents.

Toxic vs. positive school culture

A toxic school culture has been described as a place where “staffs are extremely fragmented, where the purpose of serving students has been lost to the goal of serving the adults, where negative values and hopelessness reign.” (Realizing a Positive School Culture, 1998)

Anthony Muhammad — a high school principal and the author of Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff — describes a toxic school culture as an environment where school staff “fails to figure out what’s needed to cultivate the characteristics necessary for student growth and learning.”

Obviously, this is not a good environment for any school.

On the other hand, a positive school culture is a place where your efforts are translated into positive experiences for both staff and students. Success, joy, and accomplishment are all main features of a positive school culture.

When your school has a positive culture, teachers are excited to work because they see the bigger picture, and students are in a better position (mentally and emotionally) to learn.

How School Leaders are Involved

What is your role in creating a positive school culture?

Your role as a school leader can be defined in three basic steps:

  • Read the culture of your school: Analyze and understand the current culture of your school. This means observing the attitudes of teachers in the classroom and in staff meetings, and understanding the general feeling of students towards the school and the staff.
  • Identify which aspects are toxic and which are positive: Write down the aspects of your school that improve the atmosphere and those which cause negative feelings in teachers and students.
  • Reinforce positive elements: From that list, pull out the positive aspects of your school culture, and include other values, attitudes, or qualities that you would like to see in your school. Then, take action to reinforce those positive qualities and create a positive school culture.

What are some specific ways to reinforce a positive atmosphere in your school?

11 Proven ways to build a positive school culture

1. Create meaningful parent involvement

Generating clear, open communication with the parents of your students can help you avoid misunderstandings and remove feelings of mistrust or hostility.

To involve parents in your school culture, give them a platform for feedback on classroom activities or school programs. Ask them about their hopes or concerns regarding their children’s education. Go beyond parent-teacher meetings and organize workshops where teachers and parents can discuss homework, study skills, and tests.

Involving parents in school activities in a meaningful way also helps foster positive feelings between the school and the parents. You can ask parents to be on event committees or to participate in school fundraisers.

Developing educational programs for parents can also help involve them in their children’s schooling, and thus build a more positive atmosphere in your school.

For example, Hollibrook Elementary in Spring Branch, Texas, developed a “Parent University” to get parents more actively involved in the school — helping build trust and rapport between the school and the families of the students.

2. Celebrate personal achievement and good behavior

This means more than the occasional “good job.”

Complimenting kids helps them to feel that they are cared for individually. Both you and your staff play a huge part in this aspect of your school culture.

One way to generate more positive reinforcement from your staff is to set goals for the number of compliments each member has to give during the day or week. Encourage them to give specific compliments that highlight what each individual student has done well.

Celebrating the achievements of your students can be done on a larger scale as well.

For example, Joyce Elementary School in Detroit started holding an honor ceremony for students. Here, they presented medallions for students and praised specific achievements. This event includes not only school members, but hundreds from the community.

3. Establish school norms that build values

Your school and classroom rules should be clear to all students, and should be well-regulated.

However, this doesn’t mean that you need to establish rules for every possible situation.

Instead, create school norms that focus on building positive values in your class. This helps kids to learn, not just what they should and shouldn’t do, but why they should or shouldn’t do it.

For example, instead of creating specific rules about chewing gum, use of water bottles, or electronic devices in the classroom, you could create a classroom rule that states: “Be respectful of the people around you.”

To help students apply these norms, there should be consistency across the entire school building, inside and out.

4. Set consistent discipline

When rules are not followed, discipline must be administered. However, broadening the range of discipline methods can help encourage a positive school culture.

Instead of constantly putting out fires, trying a more proactive approach to discipline. Giving a student detention after bad behavior teaches him that he did something wrong. But giving him a task that helps correct the wrong teaches him what he should’ve done instead.

For example, imagine one student started a fight. His discipline could include having to write a letter of apology to the student he hurt, and then to take a shift as “hallway monitor”.

Having students work to correct their own wrongs helps encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. 

Getting your teachers to internalize the subtle and tactful arts of classroom management consistently is critical for a school culture of mutual respect and adherence to rules — both by teachers and students. 

Also, it’s essential that all discipline is presented consistently across the school. When all students are treated equally and bad behavior is disciplined in the same way in different classrooms, this helps removes feelings of mistrust among students. 

5. Model the behaviors you want to see in your school

You have a list of qualities and values that you want to see in your teachers and students.

But how well do you present those same aspects of your school culture?

All changes have to start from the top. That means when you interact with teachers and students, you need to be an example of the behavior that you want to see in your school.

6. Engage students in ways that benefit them

When in school, your students are learning more than just secular instruction. They’re also developing their social skills, and learning how to become successful adults.

Schools that help students develop essential social skills are preparing them on an even deeper level for their future after graduation.

One way to engage students and develop these types of skills is through social-emotional learning (SEL). Throughout the day, encourage teachers to include activities that help students develop qualities such as empathy, reliability, respect, concern, and a sense of humor.

In the research brief Social Emotional Learning in Elementary School, researchers found that SEL programs helped students make more ethical decisions, maintain positive relationships, set and achieve goals at school and at home, and manage their emotions. These programs promoted achievements at school, and reduced substance abuse and emotional distress.

7. Create rituals and traditions that are fun for students and teachers

The school day — and school year — should be punctuated with time for fun. This helps students engage with each other in positive events and builds morale in school.

For example, one school created a weekly event called ‘Fabulous Friday’, which opened students up to a variety of fun activities. Why not create your own version of Fabulous Friday?

For example, you can create special rituals and traditions for the first day of school, or for the first day of a new month.

Creating appropriate times to have fun and laugh breaks up the day and gives students a chance to relax in between learning. This helps them become more refreshed when returning to the classroom.

8. Encourage innovation in the classroom

Innovation in the classroom starts with you — the school leader.

When talking with teachers, encourage them to try new methods of teaching. You can even set up regular meetings to discuss new research on teaching methods or new teaching tech, and how these can be implemented in your school.

These meetings will help the whole teaching staff to brainstorm and implement new ideas, bringing teachers into the process of building your school culture.

For example, why not try game-based learning?

Particularly popular for improving results in topics like math, video game based learning has been shown to heighten the level of interest, concentration, and enjoyment of educational materials among students.

And teachers tend to agree: in one study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, almost 80% of K-8 classroom teachers surveyed agreed that digital games have “improved student mastery of curricular content”.

Plus, it’s fun!

9. Professional development for teachers

Students are not the only people in your school who should be learning. Helping your teachers to develop their skills will encourage a positive school culture by giving them the ability to improve their craft.

For example, the Mooresville Intermediate School in North Carolina pairs each new teacher with a mentor at the beginning of their career at the school. This helps teachers to be fully aware of school policies and rules, and gives them specific instruction in how the school uses tech in the classroom.

Supporting new teachers in this way can help promote a consistent atmosphere across your school.

Also, it’s good to make sure that you as the school leader are aware of what your teachers think and feel in their work. Set up regular times to ask for feedback, hear out concerns, and get suggestions for improvement.

10. Maintain the physical environment of your school

Surprisingly enough, the physical surroundings of students and teachers has a huge impact on the culture of your school.

The HEAD Project (Holistic Evidence and Design) took evidence from over 3,700 students in 27 diverse schools. They found that the physical space where students are learning can account for a 16% variation in the learning process over a school year.

What aspects of a classroom have the most impact?

It was found that half of the learning impact came from light, temperature, and air quality. The other half of learning impact came from factors such as individualization of the environment and color of the room. For example, the ideal classroom was found to have light-colored walls with one accent wall of a brighter color.

Adopting a policy that allows for flexible seating in classrooms is one step school leaders are taking more frequently.

Adjusting these seemingly insignificant factors isn’t difficult, and can result in an increase in student engagement and improvement in learning.

11. Keep tabs on your school’s culture, and make adjustments when necessary

Unfortunately, creating a positive school culture isn’t just a matter of following a checklist. As a school leader, you need to stay informed of what’s going on in your school, and understand the attitudes and atmosphere that permeate the hallways and classrooms.

As we mentioned above, starting the process of improving your school culture involves analyzing the current situation of your school. This analyzation process should become a regular part of your schedule.

Set aside time every few months to analyze your school culture. Keep on the watch for the specific factors that indicate a positive school culture, and keep using the steps above to reinforce those aspects. Also, be aware of any negative factors that have started to seep in, and take decisive action to remove those.

Above all, take time to listen to feedback from both teachers and students in order to understand the experience that they are having in your school.


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