Innovative Ways to Create A Positive School (and District) Culture

Building a strong school and district culture is the foundation of effective schools. To do so requires consistent and intentional effort. Here are resources to support you.
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The role of school and district leaders has shifted dramatically in the past decades, and most especially during the pandemic. What was once a focus on operations has been replaced with an urgent need for instructional leadership to accelerate student learning, restore well-being, and attract and retain high-quality teachers. A strong, positive, and inclusive school (and district) culture is the rock upon which that kind of leadership is built. 

According to The Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program report, “Rethinking the Role of the Principal” when leaders are able to address the needs and priorities of their school communities through building a positive school climate, they’re able to truly transform K-12 education. Increasing teacher efficacy and sense of belonging, growing trust between parents and educators, and delivering real gains in student success academically, socially, and behaviorally are among the many benefits of doing so. 

Now is a good time to reset and prioritize how you can create the conditions that engage all members of your community into bringing a shared vision of equity and excellence to life. At New Leaders, we offer innovative strategies and resources to guide your steps so that your school (or district) can build a positive culture and reach new heights, year after year after year. 

What is school culture? 

School culture is the foundation on which effective schools are built. The same is true for districts. The key ingredients, as outlined in our Transformational Leadership Framework, include: 

  • Establishing a shared school mission, values and behaviors focused on academic and social-emotional success for every student
  • Building and maintaining meaningful relationships among teachers and staff and creating an environment where all members feel safe, valued, and seen
  • Purposefully engaging families and communities in mutual partnerships that promote the well-being of students, families, and the community

Why is a positive school culture important? 

When a school community collectively feels cared for and valued, great things happen. Students are more engaged, and they take more intellectual risks. Educators and staff are more trusting and candid, not only with one another but with the people who they look to as leaders. They openly share their perspectives and help to shape school-based decisions. Parents feel more confident in the value of engaging with their school and play an active role in their child(ren)’s education. When school leaders create the conditions in which everyone in the school community feels valued, they can drive significant improvements in students overall academic achievement, behavior, and attendance—as well as teacher satisfaction and retention. 

This kind of positive school culture takes intentional effort. It does not happen overnight. But  small steps in the right direction demonstrate your commitment to doing so. Here are five ways to consider as you continue to strengthen the culture in your school and district.

Cultivate trust and build meaningful relationships 

Trust is the underpinning of a positive school culture. According to researchers at Harvard, the strength of a culture is determined by interactions among all members of a school community. Specifically, the more overlapping and cohesive interactions and communications, the more a school community’s shared vision, values, and beliefs are spread, reinforced, and owned.

From an impromptu conversation in the hallway with a parent to implementing an instructional shift, there are an infinite number of ways for school leaders to build trust in your relationships with staff, students, and families. Making your words and actions match is a great start. Holding yourself, and others, accountable is important. Openly engaging in important, and often hard, conversations about equity and student outcomes demonstrates what you value and your commitment to elevating all voices and ensuring all students thrive. 

For more actions that can help build trusting relationships around every corner, read Shaping School Culture: Four Leadership Actions to Consider. Done together, these daily actions not only contribute to your school culture but fuel a sense of collective efficacy and agency within your school community.

Consider systemic approaches to supporting teacher self-care

We’re all familiar with the benefits of individual approaches to self-care, like breathing exercises, yoga, dedicated time with family and friends. But what does self-care for educators look like at broader levels? Are the systemic changes that might get to the underlying cause of ongoing stress and anxiety?  

For starters, consider how you protect or give time back to teachers. Talking directly with your staff is the best way to determine what can be taken off their plates, but here are a few strategies school leaders have found to be successful: Reducing email overwhelm by sending a weekly update. Auditing programs currently in place, prioritizing those that show evidence of impact of learning gains, and discontinuing the programs that no longer work. Building a shared bank of teaching resources for inevitable last-minute coverage needs. 

Remember prioritizing teacher time helps your teachers—and you—focus on what matters most: student learning. For more systemic approaches to teacher self-care, read How School Leaders Can Create the Conditions to Support Teacher Self-Care

Make family and community engagement equitable and accessible

Many schools and districts saw an increase in parent and community engagement during the pandemic. We all needed each other in ways previously unimagined. Building on that sense of momentum is a key lesson learned. Here is another helpful shift to strengthen the culture of your school or district.

Focus on engagement—and not involvement—as your end goal. Here’s why. When you target involvement, your goal is for parents to attend events like an open house. That action is usually one-way, with your school telling families what they can do. When you engage, you’re looking to attract and draw in, making families an integral part of school life

A healthy engagement strategy begins with listening to families—their ideas, communication preferences, and what they know works best for their children—and then developing a trusting partnership that enables parents to be co-educators. The same is true for community-centric engagement. Connecting with community partners allows schools to harness the expertise that exists in their own backyard—and at the same time, explore how the school can contribute in meaningful ways to the broader community. 

Innovate your family and community engagement approach by exploring new strategies outlined in School-Community Engagements: 5 Steps to Creating Impactful Partnerships and Family Engagement: Four Ways to Make it Equitable and Accessible

Rethink your school vision with teachers and staff in mind

A positive school culture involves every member of the school community. When we create a school culture with teachers and staff at the center, they’re more likely to thrive—and when they thrive, it’s more likely they’ll want to stay in the classroom

Rethinking your school vision through the lens of the adults can help you to propel your vision forward and advance student achievement and school improvement. Consider thinking about your success and growth through the lens of your teachers and staff. These reflection questions can help you on that path:

  • What is the ultimate goal for the teachers and staff at our school?
  • What do we want teachers and staff to believe about themselves and their potential?
  • What does success look like for them?
  • What values should our larger school community model to help them reach these goals?

Making sure your students have what they need to succeed is likely why you became a school leader. But, we also know that a positive school climate isn’t just about students feeling supported. It’s also about setting educators and staff up for success so they in turn can pass that success on to your students and families. 

Discover more ways to set everyone up for success and strengthen your school climate. Read How to Center Your Teachers & Staff in Your School’s Culture.

Focus on capacity-building over compliance

District leaders play a vital role in helping to build cultures that promote capacity rather than emphasize compliance. The most effective districts center on supporting principal and teacher growth as their target, knowing that increased student achievement will follow.

Take, for example, a district’s approach to classroom observations. Is the approach intentional in leveraging observation systems to support and build teacher facility in creating and delivering high-quality, rigorous lessons? Or does the approach over-emphasize compliance in utilizing a set curriculum or particular scope and sequence? If the latter, district leaders might want to consider re-evaluating and working with school leaders and teachers to create a system for observations that is purposeful in building effectiveness and collaborative by design. In doing so,  districts advance a culture of growth and opportunity.

To learn more, read our expert blog from Anne Thomas, a New Leaders alum and member of our New Leaders team. A former educator, principal, and district leader for over 25 years, Thomas offers tried-and-true actions for district leaders to consider in Culture Isn’t Just for Schools: District Leadership Matters.

Be intentional about culture all year long

It’s tempting to think that a positive school culture is addressed only at the start of a new school year. But that is not the case. Creating the conditions in which adults and children feel seen, valued, and cared for takes time, consistent effort, perseverance and passion. 

As New Leaders alum Joaquin Tamayo explains: “Every young person and adult connected to any learning community in this country needs to understand at a visceral level that they belong there. Not just because they were told they do, but because the relationships, experiences and environments give them what they need, when they need it, and in the way they need it.” 

This kind of school and district culture is transformative for all involved. And together, you and your team, can cultivate it day after day, month after month, in new and invigorating ways. 

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