October 22, 2015
In my previous blog post, I discussed school culture and its importance on teacher and student achievement as well as the principal’s role in creating this culture. It seems prudent, then, to examine how school leaders might practically develop a positive school culture. There are no simple answers as to how to create a positive school culture; culture by definition is ephemeral. However, recent research demonstrates that principals who create positive school cultures share common practices.
In a report to the Wallace Foundation in 2010, Gene Bottoms and Jon Schmidt-Davis from the Southern Regional Education Board found highly-effective principals incorporated two strategies to create a positive school culture: setting clear goals and having a vision for the school, and turning mission statements into a distinct culture. However, goal setting in itself did not prove to impact school culture, only when goals and mission statements expressed high expectations for students and teachers did culture improve. Schools reporting having high expectations for students were also either moderately or highly supported by the district in which they resided.
In the report, Principals in Schools with a Positive School Culture, Nadine Engels and colleagues from the University of Brussels discovered that while identifying the traits of principals who create positive school culture is difficult, certain patterns do emerge. These researchers found that successful principals tend to be “type A” personalities, who are highly ambitious and demand high-quality outputs and improvements from their schools. While it may seem that such personalities might be abrasive, it was also noted that these principals clearly communicated school vision and expectations, while at the same time cultivating and valuing teacher initiative and providing support and feedback for teachers.
This last principal characteristic was the most important in my experience as an educator. Being asked to provide an opinion on school-level decision-making, and having that opinion valued gave me a sense of pride and a deep connection to my school. The opposite also proved to be true; when my opinion was not sought, or when disingenuously sought, I felt dejected and disconnected from the school, which surely impacted my performance.
Lastly, education consultant Shelley Habegger, in a 2008 report for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, found that principals who created a positive school culture accomplished two tasks: creating a sense of belonging with both teachers and students, and providing a clear direction for both teachers and students. With students, the principals surveyed stated that they sought first to build relationships, and second to raise test scores. Furthermore, the principals set clear goals for classrooms that could be monitored frequently. For teachers, successful principals gave encouragement and allowed them to work as professionals. Another crucial aspect was allotting common planning time and the creation of professional learning communities (PLCs). These principals not only created a shared vision and mission with their teachers, but also made sure that teachers were aware of the school’s mission and that they used it in shared decision-making.
In the past decade, the bulk of educational research has focused on the importance individual teachers have on student achievement. And while there is no doubt that teachers can have the biggest influence on student achievement, researchers may have overlooked a key factor that enables teachers to perform their best: school culture. While research on this topic is nascent, we already know some best practices that effective principals utilize to create a positive school culture. The next logical step would be to incorporate what the research demonstrates into principal preparation programs for the betterment of our schools, teachers, and students.