Originally Posted by Ian Jukes on
For school leaders, defining a school’s culture – the core values, practices and organizational structures – is a necessity. In fact, a school’s ability to improve performance depends on it. But fostering a performance-based culture is not something that can be completed and checked off a single to-do list; it is an ongoing process.
How do schools accomplish this? It’s all about intention. High-performing schools are intentional about creating culture by introducing clear cultural expectations, and holding staff and students accountable to these core values. When clear expectations for behavior are established and reinforced – while allowing room for reflection and adjustments to these standards – a growth-minded, results-driven environment can be achieved.
I recently led a workshop on the topic of school culture for the New York City Department of Education’s New Schools Intensive (NSI), program for school leaders that are opening new schools, and one of the big takeaways was the importance of communication.
When setting expectations, clear communication is key.
High-performing school leaders are effective in messaging that school is a place with specific standards that enable both staff and students to thrive. I often share the following example with school leaders and find that it resonates – unlike an elevator or a place of worship, where there are unspoken norms for behavior, new schools and existing schools that aim to rebuild their culture need expectations to be stated explicitly.
These values are upheld through established cultural elements that are consistent and visible from classroom to classroom. Such elements often include instituting a Student Code of Conduct, identifying one positive behaviors or mega-cognitive skill per month to highlight across the school, drafting guidelines on issuing rewards and consequences for student behavior and establishing school routines (e.g. arrival, dismissal, hallway transitions) and rituals (weekly celebrations, achievement-oriented field trips, class cheers).
Building & Reinforcing ExpectationsThe work does not end with establishing standards. School leaders building an intentional culture not only introduce expectations, but also reinforce them when individuals act inappropriately. First and foremost, the saying “actions speak louder than words” rings true – school leaders and staff who model the behaviors they seek in their students help to create a stronger culture. Students are more likely to show school pride if teachers join in on the excitement, as well as listen and show respect if teachers return the favor.
When it comes down to it, school culture is built in small, easy-to-ignore moments.
When someone acts in a way that is at odds with a school’s values, expectations and norms, school leaders and staff are faced with the decision of letting it go, or intervening to make it clear that “we don’t do that here.” What could be viewed by some as an easily excused moment is actually an opportunity to remind everyone involved that the school’s culture needs to be front-and-center.
“We Don’t Do That Here.”The phrase, “we don’t do that here,” involves a deliberate choice of words. The messaging is key. “Here” withholds judgment about whether the behavior would be appropriate elsewhere; “we” enforces the idea that the school is a community, rather than shaming or excluding the individual from that community; and the overall message is straight to the point, reinforcing that school is a place where certain behaviors are expected.
It is important to note that these conversations will always be uncomfortable. During the NSI workshop, attendees participated in a role-play activity to practice initiating difficult conversations. The goal was to get comfortable “being uncomfortable”. Without constant reinforcement through these difficult conversations, a school’s cultural values won’t stick.
It Takes Work (And Professional Development)Intention requires deliberate and consistent professional development. Just as students will not embrace a school’s cultural elements overnight, neither will staff. A common strategy among effective school leaders is to create a year-long “Culture Calendar” that includes recurring planning meetings, reflective discussions and practice sessions to allocate time for collaboration with staff.
These tactics are just one element of establishing a performance-based culture. Using platforms like Kickboard, collecting and analyzing student data and other factors all play a role here. But it all comes back to intention. A strong school culture does not form on its own; it is built.
_____________________________________________________Jennifer Medbery is a former math teacher and founder and CEO of Kickboard, a web-based school analytics platform that allows educators and school leaders to capture, analyze and securely share critical student performance data. For more information about Kickboard’s school-wide solution or its free starter accounts for individual educators, visitwww.kickboardforteachers.com.