Shaping School Culture: Four Leadership Actions to Consider

Maintaining a positive school culture is a long game, and building relationships with your school community is a big part of that process. Here are some tips to ensure success.
Two adults hugging in a school classroom.
4/12/22
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When a school community collectively feels cared for and valued, great things happen.

Students are more engaged, and they feel comfortable taking intellectual risks. They feel like their teachers and school leaders know them and want to see them succeed, and they flex their curiosity and growth mindset muscles as a result. 

Educators and staff are more trusting and candid, not only with one another but with the people who they look to as leaders. They feel like they have a say in key decisions—particularly the ones that affect them—and the autonomy they experience leads to unlocked creativity, expertise, and collaboration. 

Parents feel more confident in the value of their school involvement and have a larger appreciation for the critical role they play in their child’s education. 

When everyone in the school community feels safe and empowered, accelerated school improvement and student outcomes— and a decreased likelihood of teacher turnover—aren’t far behind. 

This kind of positive school climate doesn’t happen overnight. It takes sustained and intentional effort. And, we know—especially as we’ve navigated the twists and turns of the past two years—how important it is to cultivate meaningful relationships in our school environments. Here are four measures to take into consideration as you continue to strengthen the culture in your school.

Humanize yourself as a leader

School leaders often have to wear a variety of different hats: the instructional leader with clear expectations, the encouraging coach, the unflappable chief communicator, and the supportive counselor. And during the pandemic, the health and safety controller. Because of all of these roles, there might be a preconceived notion of who you are. The disciplinarian. The ultimate decision-maker. The superhero. 

Those who look to you for leadership expect you to have a clear vision and be resilient through challenging times. But it’s also crucial that your school community get to know you as a person, not just as your role. Make it a priority to share aspects of your “why” and your personality. What drew you to educational leadership? Why are you so passionate about student achievement? Leaning into opportunities where you can be vulnerable—especially in front of your staff—can help you shed that superhero cape and create authentic connections.

Those who look to you for leadership expect you to have a clear vision and be resilient through challenging times. But it’s also crucial that your school community get to know you as a person, not just as your role. 

Prioritize equity and inclusion

As school leaders, we always have an eye toward the future and know the actions we take today make an equitable education system possible for everyone. One of the most critical ways you can develop as an equity-focused leader is to promote a mindset in all members of your team that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels, and then take the actions to ensure all students have access to effective, high-quality curricula that are both academically rigorous and culturally responsive and relevant.

Another way to make sure equity is at the forefront is to be intentional when it comes to listening and understanding your community’s perspectives. This might look like implementing a feedback system and collecting input from students, parents, and teachers on the best way to implement that system. It helps to gain insight from the staff members who aren’t always in the leadership meetings or the parents who are working and aren’t able to attend evening events or pick their children up from school in the afternoons. When there’s a focus on everyone’s voices being heard—not just those who are the loudest—your school community will take notice. 

When there’s a focus on everyone’s voices being heard—not just those who are the loudest—your school community will take notice. 

In addition, engaging with your teachers, parents, and staff in honest conversations about your equity-focused goals—the current state, goals, and what steps need to be taken to get there—has the ability to unify your community around a common goal and create shared ownership. 

Focus on communication

One of the takeaways we’ve seen from the COVID-19 pandemic is that communication is paramount. Great school communication can be found in the overlap of three key pillars: consistency, frequency, and accessibility. Regular communications help those in your school community know what to expect—and the consistency creates security and trust.

Accessibility is equally important. Your school community has varying comfort levels and needs when it comes to how information is disseminated, and having multiple channels for a mixture of in-person, streaming, and digital communications can ensure you’re not leaving anyone out inadvertently. And speaking of accessibility, it speaks volumes if school leaders are a visible part of these communications. It’s another way for your community to get to know you and can act as a potential conversation starter in the future for parents, community members, and teachers. 

Build a foundation of trust

Trust is the underpinning of positive school culture. It can be elusive and takes time to develop, but when trust is present in a school building, there’s a tangible difference in energy. Education researcher Anthony Bryk defines this as relational trust—trust that is rooted in the challenging work of school improvement facilitates accountability while allowing staff to experience autonomy. It also facilitates the safety needed to try new things. 

Trust is the underpinning of positive school culture. It can be elusive and takes time to develop, but when trust is present in a school building, there’s a tangible difference in energy.

School leaders can work to foster trust in several ways. They can do what they say they’re going to do. They can hold themselves, and others, accountable for their actions. They can have tough and honest conversations that will move the needle and lead to better outcomes for teachers, parents, and ultimately, students. They can have respect for everyone within the school community and have an acute understanding of how all of the roles within a school work together to achieve the desired outcome. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that trust is developed equally in the big moments of a school’s journey—managing a crisis, rolling out a major instructional or curriculum change—as it is in the small ones, such as a hallway exchange with a teacher or an impromptu conversation with a parent. Both are important in building lasting relationships and a positive school climate. 

Connection is important

DC Bilingual Head of School Daniela Anello says it best: “We want everyone in our community—staff, students, parents, community members—to have a connection to someone who understands them, empathizes with them, and is looking out for them. These actions, compounded together, can help build relationships at every corner and go a long way towards building a strong school culture based on trust, respect, and engagement. 

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