The culture of a school affects the quality of teaching, the depth of learning, and the relationships that students develop among educators, students, and parents. When students feel safe and connected to their teachers and peers, they are able to achieve extraordinary academic and social learning. When educators develop trust and a shared purpose, staff learning and problem solving are improved. When parents know their children are safe, and feel personally welcomed and respected, support for the school improves, and further parent learning is possible.The school culture is a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions, and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization. It is the historically transmitted pattern of meaning that wields astonishing power in shaping what people think and how they act. Roland Barth (2002) wisely observed, “A school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal can ever have.”
In one school, a teacher is yelling at young children in her classroom with an angry voice. Teachers and students are passing in the hallway, but no one looks at the door of this classroom. No adult knocks on it to see if help is needed. No adult calls the teacher over for a quiet conversation.
In another school, a novice teacher arrives on time for her first staff meeting. She finds herself alone in the room, wondering if she misunderstood the location. After a few moments, the principal comes in with a folder of papers, but without an agenda for the meeting. Teachers drift in. With only partial attendance, the meeting begins. Questions are posed. Discussion is scant. A group of four experienced teachers come in twenty minutes late, sitting together at the table near the door. This is their designated table, everyone else knows, and they come at their own leisure.
In yet another school, a new student is sitting alone in the cafeteria. Her classmates are busily engaged in getting their own lunches, and enjoying the social play of lunchtime. After a moment, one observant student notices this new classmate. With three more students, she approaches the new student, and offers to carry her tray to the table so that she can sit with her brand-new friends.
The development of a healthy school culture that inspires lifelong learning among students and adults is the greatest challenge of instructional leadership. The elements of this healthy school culture include:
- Building classroom cultures in which students feel safe, connected, and successful
- Building respectful school cultures in which students have learned the clear expectations for behavior in common spaces
- Building school cultures in which staff model empathy and respect, and support the development of student problem-solving skills
- Building respectful and collaborative professional cultures
- Building connections with parents, clear expectations for parent interaction with the school, and opportunities for parent participation and learning
Culture sets the rules for how we treat each other, which sets the framework for whether students feel safe, and whether they achieve a state of mind that allows for optimal learning. Building a respectful school or culture is step number one for building a high-performing classroom.