Spring 2012

Transforming Schools

Five Hallmarks for the School Culture You Want

Five Hallmarks for the School Culture You Want

Culture is reflective of people, environment, beliefs, and actions, often on a very small scale. Collectively, these are the elements that define culture, “the way things are done around here.” Regardless of how similar students, teachers, and schools may be, each and every school has its own culture, because all people and the environments in which they live are different.

Culture is reflective of people, environment, beliefs, and actions, often on a very small scale. Collectively, these are the elements that define culture, “the way things are done around here.” Regardless of how similar students, teachers, and schools may be, each and every school has its own culture, because all people and the environments in which they live are different. Cultivating school culture means that everyone must embrace the diversity present within the school and work toward pulling together everyone and their different beliefs with the singular goal of providing an environment where students can succeed.

The first step in creating a culture is to develop the school’s vision and align school procedures, routines, and expectations with that vision. The vision is formed by identifying the school’s current state, determining what the school community wants the school to achieve, then ensuring that all actions that follow work in concert with that vision. This process requires the first hallmark: communication.

Hallmark 1: Communication

Communication is vital among and between all stakeholders in order to capture their perspectives. This can be accomplished through a number of methods. One of the most substantial is the Professional Learning Community (PLC), a forum for sharing professional opinions, strategies, networking, and building collegial trust. PLCs may be homogenous or eclectic and may be organized for specific tasks or purposes or may serve as general brainstorming venues. Other opportunities are plus/delta analyses, perception surveys, issue bins, open door policies, and focus groups. All of these help to facilitate the second hallmark: buy-in.

Hallmark 2: Buy-In

A school community includes people within and beyond the school walls. Everyone’s input is important, and typically, only when people feel their input is appreciated will they have buy-in. Students, teachers, parents, community members, and other stakeholders must be active participants in a school’s culture, because each of these is responsible for fulfilling the mission. Their input must be solicited, considered, and used in building a culture that promotes the common goals everyone shares. Feedback must be timely, acted upon, and communicated back to all stakeholders to demonstrate the validity and importance of their contributions. One important element where this input provides value is in constructing an action plan of how every school community member may help the community advance, and this is accomplished through the third hallmark: expectations.

Hallmark 3: Expectations

Not only should these community members’ ideas be invited, they, themselves, should be invited to become involved in the school as well. Each has something unique to contribute, even if that contribution is not obvious, and each person is valuable. To take advantage of that value, every person needs a role, and every person needs to know his/her role. Define each person’s and/or each group’s roles. Set measurable and realistic expectations and benchmarks. Outline how and when the attainment of those benchmarks will be determined. Designate individuals as the key support persons to intervene when benchmarks are not met, or when individuals or groups working toward benchmarks need assistance. Locate and utilize external resources like community partners (university faculty and students, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, etc.) who are willing to contribute expertise and resources that will help cultivate the culture you are working to build. None of this, however, can be fulfilled without the fourth hallmark: leadership.

Hallmark 4: Leadership

A respected and dependable leadership team is central to a school’s success. The team members must earn the trust of students, teachers, and parents by demonstrating not only competence in how they work, but also caring about what they do. They also must earn the trust and respect of external stakeholders to assure the stakeholders that they are contributing to a culture led by individuals who embody their values and who will use their resources, whatever those may be, wisely. Leaders must set the example—for knowledge, for work to be done, for attitudes to exhibit. Leaders also must demonstrate a passion for learning and for making decisions based on what is best for all students. They must articulate this consistently in every interaction, meeting, correspondence, event, etc. Additionally, they must assess and monitor to ensure expectations are being met and provide support for everyone including redirection, which will be needed at times.

Hallmark 5: Commitment

These hallmarks are enveloped by perhaps the fifth and most expected hallmark: commitment. A lack of or breakdown in commitment by any individual or group stains the effort, and all others must work to compensate for the greater good.

Tips to improve school culture
Use these suggestions to help cultivate your school’s culture, regardless of where you may be in the process.
  • Seek both input and feedback on school issues, challenges, and concerns, and maintain candid, clear, and constructive dialogs.
  • Allow everyone a voice, and listen to what they say.  Validate their input and respect diverse points of view.
  • Keep the focus on students in every way.  Remind everyone that they are “our kids” and that this is “our school.”  Individually, we are good, collectively, we are great!
  • Rationalize and justify decisions in order for all to understand reasoning.
  • Assess, analyze, implement, and tweak. Improvement is continuous and circular, without really having a defined beginning or end.
  • Ensure ongoing support for every individual and every need.
  • Encourage and hold everyone accountable.
  • Celebrate successes then set future goals.

One cannot change the past; one can only hope to influence the future. The students you see each day will decide what the future is. Show them the type of world they could have. You could wait until tomorrow to change your school’s culture, but why? Start today.

Dr. Sabrah Kingham is the principal of St. John Elementary School (PK-5) in Lake Charles, LA, a mentor for new school leaders in Calcasieu Parish, and a member of the Louisiana AdvancED Council. She has served as a PK-8 educator, Elementary Curriculum Specialist, Assistant Principal, and adjunct instructor at McNeese State University and Louisiana Tech University.

Dr. Dustin Hebert is the Director of Graduate Education Programs at McNeese State University. He has served as a high school educator and university faculty member in Louisiana. He also is a Partner in Education with St. John Elementary School and assists in facilitating collaboration between the two educational institutions.

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