Creating and maintaining a positive school culture seems to be on the minds of education leaders everywhere.
Books. Conferences. Seminars. Social media. This blog post, among the countless others devoted to the topic. The advice and “solutions” seem almost endless.
Why? Why is developing a positive school culture so hard that we need so much help?
I think it is because we need to rethink what school culture actually is. It is not something that can be scripted. It cannot be instituted, much less planned and plotted.
Before you click away, please stick with me here for at least a few more lines…I know many of you are here because you want there to be a clear answer—a clear vision on how to improve your school—but first you have to let go of the idea that you can control culture. Let me explain.
Let’s start our thoughts in the kindergarten classroom—perhaps the most challenging and inspiring room in any district.
Skilled teachers know that they are not actually in charge of their classes. The students are. In reality, a teacher standing in front of a group of 25 kindergartners would have no chance controlling the situation if the students decided to break all the rules. There are simply too many of them, and they are fast! Skilled teachers do not control students. It is not possible. Instead, they teach and empower students to control themselves.
The secret is that those 25 kindergartners each individually decide to follow the teacher’s lead because they trust that teacher.
A skilled teacher develops trust between and among the students by learning about each and every student—their skills, talents, wants, needs, dreams, friends, enemies, and favorite stories.
How? By asking students the right questions. More importantly, that skilled teacher turns the answers into deeper questions that prompt the student to make connections. From basic arithmetic to calculus in high school, there will be times when the student is not ready for the next question; skilled teachers have to know their students fully so that they can recognize when to slow down.
And that is when learning can really begin: at the intersection of positive teacher-student relationships and trust.
So the premise is this: Classrooms are controlled by students, not by the teacher. However, the teacher can guide students by providing the right questions that allow their students to create their own positive classroom culture.
The same is true with the entire school. It absolutely scales up. The principal does not control the school. However, by asking the right questions, they can guide students and staff to create their own positive school culture.
A skilled school leader will ask their staff questions that will allow each of them to grow and gain trust in the school system. So what questions should they ask? Great question. Glad you asked.
Naturally, the answer to that question continues to grow and develop as the needs of staff and students change. But these 10 questions can help define and develop positive school culture. These are not simple and must be asked repeatedly to be effective. Education leaders should be asking both themselves and their staff members these on a regular basis.
10 Questions to Help Define and Develop Positive School Culture
To be successfully growing as a professional, appropriate risk taking needs to occur. Being nervous (but not fearful—big difference) is a good thing. Allowing staff to try new approaches, new programs, even old programs that are new to them, means that the school values growth. Nervous—not fearful—also means that staff feel supported even if their attempt fails. Administrators, staff, and students should all be experiencing some level of nervousness from time to time. Have you or your staff been allowed to be nervous recently?
The stories we tell become a vision of who we are. If we only tell stories of failure, loss, or struggle—then those will be the stories and outcomes we seek next. Are we intentional about the stories we tell? Have you shared a story of student or colleague’s success?
Over the course of a student’s day, what will they want to share about when they get home? If we are not giving our students stories to tell, then what are we giving them? This does not mean that they must be entertained…but they must have an experience worth sharing.
Simple test: A student is in the room asking you a question, a coworker stops by in the doorway to tell you something, and your phone rings showing an administrator on the caller ID. Who gets your attention?
Bonus point: Would every staff member answer this question the same way? Why? (Hint: it should never be the administrator…they can wait).
Make a list of the qualities you value as an educator. Now evaluate the last five assignments you gave. Do those assignments demonstrate those values?
In my school, 7th graders are graded A–F for the first time in their schooling careers. But as a system, we never really stopped at the start of the year to help students understand what A–F meant until last year. Students would be told they were failing a class but not know what that really meant. Up to that point, “They should know this,” was assumed. Last year we stopped assuming and intentionally taught them the grading system. Incredible difference in student academic behavior after that!
If you hear a staff member say, “They should know this already!” do you analyze it as a system? Should the students, in fact, know it? If they should, then will you determine why they don’t and do something about it?
Student behavior? Test scores? District-level paperwork? Coworker? Papers to grade? Something somewhere had to be dropped to the bottom of the list. The job is simply to daunting to do it all. So what did you ignore? More importantly, can you continue to ignore it?
True story. I took my family to Disneyland a year ago. Standing outside the gates waiting to get in, 5 minutes from gate opening, the excitement literally causing my children to bounce excitedly…and then it hit me. Literally. On the head first, then down my shirt, and onto my jeans…the largest most disgusting pigeon dropping you can imagine. There was no hiding it. It was awful. And I had no way to get back to the hotel to change without a giant disruption to what was supposed to be an amazing day. So I used the wipes we had to clean as best I could…and then…I let it go. I even completely forgot about it until the very end of the day when I changed for bed. It was one of the best days ever.
Will you choose to ignore the right things? Will your staff all make this choice? Should they?
We spend a lot of time focused on positive interactions with our students—learning about them, adjusting our plans to meet their needs, supporting them when they fail, pushing them further when they succeed. Do we treat our staff with the same respect?
Advocacy can take on many forms. But ultimately, what have you done to ensure that your students and community are receiving the very best?
Bonus Question: After asking these questions, what will your school do with the answers? The answer to that will ultimately define and develop your positive school culture.
Jeff Charbonneau has worked at all levels in the education spectrum. From 2001 to 2018, he taught chemistry, physics, and robotics at Zillah High School. Since the fall of 2018, he has served as the principal of Zillah Middle School in Zillah, WA. Charbonneau has also worked as an adjunct faculty member at Central Washington University in the Continuing Education Department. After being named Washington’s Teacher of the Year in 2013, he was selected as the 2013 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Barack Obama recognized him for his innovative teaching approach and success during a ceremony at the White House. In 2015 he was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. Charbonneau is an internationally recognized teacher leader and education advocate. He has presented at more than 400 conferences across the globe focusing on STEM education, teacher preparation programs, teacher leadership initiatives, and dual credit programs.