Culture is Critical

What is Culture, Anyway?

Culture is the way things are. Culture is the intersection of theory and practice. Culture is what we all believe and how we act upon those beliefs.

Culture is at the foundation of every school community. Culture is the expression of purpose and gives meaning to everything that happens. Culture is how we speak to and interact with everyone around us. Culture is about our expectations and hopes. Culture is about how we manage problems and anxieties. Culture is about how and why we change and adapt. Culture is the single most critical feature in the life of a school.

Elements of a Thriving Culture

Shared Fundamental Values

These values are both few and simple to understand. However, they carry great meaning and are the basis of advancing a flourishing school culture. They are the foundation of the roadmap for the school to move forward. They are the engine that drives school culture.

Clear Vision

An authentic and meaningful vision is developed in teamwork with other stakeholders and is received specifically as “expectations” for success. The pathway towards achieving that vision is paved with time-specific waypoints, with their own clearly defined sets of goals and objectives. This vision is a working document, based fully upon the expressed fundamental values and is monitored constantly by school leaders.

High Standards

Individuals and cultures thrive and flourish when faced with challenging goals and high standards for performance. These same individuals and cultures will wither without challenges and where standards for performance are unclear or mediocre. These standards should be clear and applied to all stakeholders: Administration, teaching staff, support staff, students and parents.

Nurturing Environment

High standards without care and nurture can be cold and heartless. Individuals and cultures that thrive and flourish are those where encouragement, affirmation, and concern for others is equally important to the other demands of the organization. A motto such as “no bystander behavior” which refers to the unique ability of each person to positively influence the culture of the school, should be one of the standards of how nurturing an environment is.


Competing Priorities

Principals and other school administrators face daily pressures to address and resolve a full array of challenging issues and tasks. The vast majority of these fall under an umbrella we can call “management.” These are the many features of each day’s focal areas including meetings, classroom visits, and evaluations, student activities and behavior issues, curriculum design, coaching on instructional strategies, budgeting, resolving staff and parent concerns, determining how best to meet district goals and objectives and so on. All of these compete for attention with the less immediate but critical need to prioritize how to develop and sustain a flourishing school culture.

Lack of High Functioning Teams

Most schools are compartmentalized in order to best function as organizations. These departments often function, in a practical sense, as independent mini organizations with separate goals, budgets, meetings and, sometimes, competing interests. In comparison, schools that demonstrate cultures that thrive and flourish often structure themselves around teams that are highly interconnected, sharing vision and values, mutual objectives, resources, and best practices. Time is set aside for the various teams to meet, both within their specific immediate areas of interest and, together, to address broader issues. Interconnected teams also function to diminish negativity and toxicity that can poison a school’s culture and obstruct positive movement forward.

Lack of Consensus on Foundational Values and a Common Vision for the Future

When there is a lack of clear communication on the school’s foundational values and where all stakeholders (teachers, administration and other support staff, parents and students) generally agree, the forward movement faces unnecessary headwinds. All organizations are best served by continual reminders on what that vision (a picture of the future) actually is and how the organization’s foundational values practically support the achievement of that vision.