School Culture - its importance and how to strengthen it

Blog 05/10/2018

School Culture – its importance and how to strengthen it

By Neil O’Toole

Culture eats strategy for breakfast’, a mantra often used in the business world, is equally applicable to leadership and change management in schools.

One can agree on common goals, create a plan and strategy, even achieve buy-in from all stakeholders, however, if the underlying culture of a school is not functional, then our efforts to transform education in many cases fail.

By starting with culture, identifying its elements, agreeing beliefs about those elements and strengthening them step-by-step, schools evolve sustainably.

If not addressed by leadership, school culture may continue to exert the same operational influence, which in some cases will be toxic. So, let’s unpack some steps in the process of strengthening school culture.

Step 1: Identifying elements of school culture

There are many areas listed in the academic literature on this, so here are some common ones for consideration (feel free to amend and add your own according to your school’s context);

  • Collaboration
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Transparency
  • Respect and trust
  • Decision-making
  • Behaviors and interaction
  • Goals
  • Support
  • Accountability
  • Feedback
  • Professional Development
  • Mistakes

Step 2: Agreeing on your school’s beliefs about elements of school culture

It is best to agree on your beliefs about these elements of your school culture as a single sentence, focusing on behaviors and using proactive language. Think of them also as essential agreements on what stakeholders expect from each other. If you can’t remember them all, they are either likely to be too long or too many in number. Remember, before addressing the weaker elements of your school culture, celebrate the elements that are already strong.

Step 3: Prioritizing and strengthening the weaker elements, by planning steps and reviewing progress regularly

Follow-up is the secret here. Let’s say one of your priorities is, for example, how your school culture deals with mistakes and you believe ‘mistakes are used as learning opportunities’. You could plan, as a next step, to log and record mistakes you make and how you learned from them. When reviewing and following up, you might reflect on how your school culture deals with mistakes (e.g. punitively, restoratively or with a growth mindset). Focus on behaviors you expect from each other and always diagnose how and why the change in this aspect of your school culture is successful or unsuccessful.

And one last tip; pay attention to language. A quick and highly-noticeable indication of school culture is the register of language used in interactions. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) shows us that language can rewire the brain for good or bad, so modelling the language we want for interactions is a healthy investment.

So, in conclusion, starting and indeed ending with school culture ensures a functional school as well as a happier and more productive working environment. This leads to compatibility between your school’s culture and its strategic development going forward.

And that kind reader, improves the final product of student learning, n’est ce pas?

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Neil O’Toole
Director of Education Strategy and Implementation
New Nordic School
Espoo, Finland


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