Author: Abe Hege, Principal and Author of The Limitless School. Abehege.com
The culture and climate of your school is the life blood of any school; without a positive culture, positive productivity isn’t happening! I recently took my first principalship at an elementary school that sits at the bottom 5% of the state in student achievement. Without hesitation, the first thing I wanted to grow was staff and student culture. When building a school culture, I take a three-phase approach: Phase one is Framework (vision, motto, etc.), phase two is Branding (the look and feel of your building), and the third phase is Sustainability (hiring, protocols, procedures, etc.).
In phase one, I wanted to take the outdated vision statement of the school and change it to represent 21st century learners. This vision would represent what we believe in and are working toward on a daily basis. When building a positive culture, it’s important to start with a shared vision with stakeholders; this helps with accountability and ownership moving forward. Our school vision is centered around the mission to enhance life outcomes and raise student achievement. This vision statement was crafted with the leadership team and then a survey was sent out to all staff members for input. After crafting the vision, we decided that our motto would be three words that showcased our vision: Integrity, Excellence, and Teamwork.
Phase two of building culture is branding. Now that we have laid down a framework of our vision and motto, we wanted to change the overall look and feel of the school to match the vision and outcomes we wanted. We put stickers on the doors, bought new rugs, painted the hallways, painted classrooms, and put graffiti in the stairwells. We also participated in a community day, where we picked up trash and cut away old weeds and shrubs outside. In phase two, focusing on the aesthetics is key. We wanted to make sure that when you walked into our school, you felt the energy immediately!
The main thing you saw pasted everywhere was: Integrity, Excellence, and Teamwork. If you want to cultivate a culture of success, then everything must move toward that. Not only in phase two did we work on the overall look of the building, but we also lived in some of the details as well. All of our school documents (schedules, letterheads, memos, etc.) have the same header, built around our motto and logo. One last switch we made in branding was that we stopped calling our kids “students” and referred to them as “scholars”. A simple switch like this can yield high results with confidence.
The last phase in building a culture is sustainability.Phase three is the phase that you will stay in the longest. It is the current phase that my school is in now. We have done a great job of changing the stigma of our school and lowering discipline numbers, but keeping all of those things going month after month, year after year, is the key to a successful and long term positive school culture. Simply put: you have to invest in your people daily. We are always trying to find new ways to motivate our staff and scholars daily. Academic programs come and go, but good people are here for the long run and we must invest in them.
When trying to sustain a school culture, onboarding new staff members and letting go of staff members that aren’t doing great things for scholars is necessary. When interviewing new staff members for vacancies, I ask questions that are built around a positive culture. For example, “In what ways can you contribute to our school culture in a positive way?” or “How do you personally build a positive classroom culture that helps push the overall climate of the school?” Even when I became the principal of my current school, the climate wasn’t great, but there were still “Culture Sparkplugs” all over the place in reference to staff members. I have found that pouring into those staff members and allowing them to spread positive culture in their own way will help build the base.
I once read that there is 20% of your staff that will complain no matter what you do, 60% of your staff that comes to work and does good things and 20% of your staff are high-fliers, the go-getters. Even though these numbers could be different based on your current school climate, I found myself focusing on the first 20% when I first became a principal. This is a defeating and vicious cycle. Instead, to build sustainability in your school, it’s important to work with the upper 20% of your staff that wants to be great and do great, they will eventually pull others up with them over the long-haul.
To continue to build your sustainability, you must continue to build procedures and systems in your school that raise scholar achievement. We are still in the process of creating these systems. The master schedule, how scholars travel in the hallway, rules, procedures, etc. are all important parts in building a positive school culture. One of the biggest changes that we made at the beginning of the year was something we called “the Fairview Five”. The leadership team brainstormed over the summer how there were different rules across the building, which gets confusing for scholars! As a team, we created five universal rules that are posted on posters, vinyl banners, and are said everyday on the announcements. Therefore, scholars always know that they are to follow these five rules no matter what grade or class they are in.
The three phases that I mentioned above may not work for you and that’s ok! In my decade spent in education, I have been in five different schools, each with its own unique challenges and celebrations. When creating a positive school culture from a leadership standpoint, it all starts with service and visibility. Regardless of the steps that you take in creating and sustaining a positive school culture, teachers and students need a leader that is quick to serve and you can’t be quick to serve if you aren’t visible to see where service is needed! Wherever your school is in its climb to become a more positive place, brainstorming with a team and always remaining focused on the actions that are going to get you the results you need and want, is all that matters.
In the end, focusing on building a strong school culture touches on all stakeholders: teachers, parents, community members, and most importantly our students!