How to Improve School Culture

During this pandemic, educators have been asked to do the impossible. Without notice or training, teachers have facilitated engaging online learning environments and performed out of their comfort zones to produce authentic digital learning experiences. For the students that were not participating online, the teachers worked around the clock to create learning packets and hands-on learning bags. As an administrator, I have never been so proud of or impressed by the teachers I work with every day.  They remained positive and focused on the goal at hand: helping all students succeed.  Even now, their positive mindset and determination are evident in all they do. This optimistic outlook is not a coincidence. I believe it all stems from the positive culture our district leaders and school administrators have established.

Shared Values

There are two things I feel our district and school leaders do well to promote a positive culture. First, our district’s values are shared and modeled. We believe that all means all. All students deserve an equitable education. We believe that safety is our number-one priority. A student cannot perform at their best if they do not feel comfortable and safe. We are passionate about supporting our student’s social-emotional growth through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Finally, we believe in the collective responsibility for teaching and learning through professional learning communities. Our leaders work hard to exemplify and model these norms. We don’t require teachers to follow our district values, we live them by being an example. 

I had an opportunity to hear Anthony Muhammad speak on transforming school culture. He shared how cultural change does not happen through coercion, but requires leaders to gain cooperation through diplomacy, salesmanship, patience, endurance, and encouragement.  When I think of great principals I have worked for and with, Muhammad’s description is spot on.  Those exceptional leaders were encouraging and supportive and served as an exemplar of what was expected. 

Celebrate Successes

Second, our leaders are intentional with celebrating the successes in our schools. Teachers need to hear what they are doing well to combat the negative narrative they may be hearing elsewhere. It is our job, as leaders, to take the time to highlight the small wins we see throughout the day.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by the weaknesses in our schools; however, when we are able to recognize improvements, teachers are reminded of their value.  Thinking back to when I was in the classroom, one of my favorite memories is when my assistant principal wrote a short message on a sticky note saying, “Thank you for taking the time to create such engaging lessons.” This simple little note was like a five-foot trophy. I kept that sticky note on my computer because I needed that encouragement on hard days. 

At the district level, I always look forward to our opening session ceremony where we come together to celebrate our successes and discuss our goals for the upcoming school year. This year the ceremony did not have the usual family reunion feel because we couldn’t hug our fellow educators or catch up on our summer experiences.  We had to meet virtually. Even with the digital challenge, however, we were still able to celebrate our wins and discuss this unprecedented year.  Our ceremony was successful because our positive culture is embedded in our shared values and collective commitments.

Our teachers are able to thrive because they have these values as their professional foundation.  James Kouzes and Barry Posner said it best in their book, The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders ensure that through the process of affirming shared values, everyone is aligned—uncovering, reinforcing, and holding one another accountable to what ‘we’ value.” As leaders, it is essential we model what we value, build relationships with our faculty and staff, and celebrate the good things happening in the schools. 



Dr. Amanda Miliner is Assistant Principal of Instruction at Matt Arthur Elementary School. She was named 2014 Miller Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year, 2014 Houston County’s Teacher of the Year, and 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She also received the Governor’s Innovative Teacher Award and was a global fellow for the National Education Association. 

A Life-Changing Conversation

It is not a secret that the scope of education is constantly evolving. With these evolutions, in-service teachers are forced to adapt to curricular, instructional, and classroom management demands in schools across the world. This has triggered many institutes of higher education to adapt as well.  Teacher preparation programs at higher education institutions are tasked with the responsibility to prepare pre-service teachers to teach effectively and to have a positive impact on student achievement in the midst of educational reforms that are sweeping across our country. Building culture in teacher preparation is essential in order to tackle this task. Creating a positive culture can assist in the development of pre-service teachers during their teaching and learning experiences.

I can vividly recall my experiences as a student in teacher preparation at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. I would enter the Department of Education and be met with a smile, a warm welcome, and a genuine concern for my progress personally and academically. All my professors had an open door policy and high expectations, and they provided me with the personalized resources to succeed as a teacher in training. Even during my student teaching experiences, reflective spaces were created with interactive dialogue, flexible attitudes, and wisdom exchanges. I felt a sense of comfort, compassion, and care that is consistent with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a hierarchy that suggests a person must feel healthy, safe, connected, and respected to become all they can be. 

I remember a life-changing conversation that I had with one of my professors as a student. This professor’s response to my situation would soon give me spine-tingling chills and teary eyes. I was approaching my last semester before graduating with my Master of Arts in Teaching. I did not have enough financial support to finish my course load. Things were really gloomy. Fortunately, this professor reminded me about grant funding acquired to support students with rigorous lesson planning. As a graduate student, I was eligible to receive this scholarship by using the Thinkfinity digital learning platform to create lesson plans for my future classroom. As a result of this grant, I was awarded with enough financial support to graduate as a certified Teacher.  I credit this combination of environmental, personal, professional, and financial support with later helping me to achieve the prestigious award of Maryland State Teacher of the Year out of over 55,000 teachers in the state. 

This behavior builds a teacher preparation culture and should be emulated. We need to create warm and welcoming environments for our pre-service teachers at all times. We need to build positive relationships between professors and teacher candidates, seeking to first understand their culture and how that shapes them individually. We need to change the standard to one of appreciation for the current level of knowledge students have and for all the effort that goes into becoming an effective teacher. We need to personalize training and resources to support the professional growth and certification of teacher candidates.  The natural conclusion is that when pre-service teachers are acknowledged, appreciated, understood, and supported they can become the best they can be: effective teachers for our children, who are at the forefront of our work.


Richard Warren is Maryland’s 2019 Teacher of the Year is on faculty the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. 

National School Choice Week

National School Choice Week (NSCW) is a slice in time for parents, educators, lawmakers, philanthropists, employers, students, and others to acknowledge the important role diverse learning ecosystems play in American education. Founded with the support of the Gleason Family Foundation in 2010, NSCW has blossomed into more than 33,000 local celebrations where students in 50 states will be featured January 25–29, 2021.

School choice takes many forms in the United States. For instance, 4,340 magnet schools educate more than 3.5 million students—which accounts for 1 out of every 15 students enrolled in public schools. There are 3.3 million students enrolled in approximately 7,500 charter schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia. A unique mix of voluntary and mandatory open enrollment programs in 47 states and the District of Columbia also expands options for students. In the non-public school sector, 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico operate 55 publicly funded scholarship programs for approximately 500,000 students. This array of options, as well as polling data showing that over 60 percent of Americans support public and private choice programs, indicates that it is worthwhile to find time to celebrate them.

Even before many of these public and private school choice programs were in operation, homeschooling provided a pathway for families to educate their children. Today, about 2.3 million students are homeschooled throughout the United States, although this number may grow as parents are rethinking the concept of schooling in a COVID-19 world. Research about participants in public and private choice programs identifies positive outcomes regarding state and national achievement examinations, high school and college matriculation and completion rates, and the effects of private choice on public school students.

As we celebrate the great things occurring in choice programs, we also should recognize that not all of them provide a quality education for students and educators, as I saw when I worked providing technical service to existing programs. The caliber of education available certainly affects how families and the general public view choice programs. Deficiencies exist, but so do possibilities. This week also provides an opportunity to note areas where the school choice sector has room for self-reflection, growth, and reform.

And as we celebrate NSCW, let us remember that the complexities of why families choose a particular learning environment are broader than a school building or virtual learning device. Families choose schools for other reasons, as research shows. For example, Drs. James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson at the University of Virginia coedited a 2018 book titled The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. It is the first in-depth investigation into how students in 10 types of American schools have their character and citizenship habits shaped in 10 different high school ecosystems, seven of which are non-public settings such as Catholic, Jewish, home, Muslim, and STEM schools. The authors find schools play an important role in the civic and moral formation of young people, and that this is why many families select a particular school over other options.

It is also worth noting that parents’ motivations for choosing schools include factors other than test scores alone, as studies have shown.

In closing, those advocating for meaningful opportunities for all families during NSCW would do well to make a moral case for school choice, pointing to the diversity of learning options as fundamental importance to our national creed.


Gerard Robinson is a Fellow of Practice at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and co-editor of Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice