When you’ve spent time at an organization where the people seem focused, enthused and energetic, you start to understand the importance of a positive, productive organizational culture.
Unfortunately, not every school culture is developed to the point where staff and students enjoy being there. In fact, one Gallup survey of U.S. students in grades five through 12 found that 29% consider themselves not engaged. The issue is similar among school staff. Gallup found, for example, that 51% of fifth- through eighth-grade school employees are not engaged at work. That disinterest may be creating a vicious cycle that affects students, since the engaged teachers are the ones who “give the discretionary effort needed to ensure their students are successful,” according to Gallup.
So what’s the answer? School administrators and teachers must take a hard look at their school cultures (or lack thereof) and form plans to build environments designed to generate more enthusiasm, school pride and overall productivity among students and staff. The good news? Those who are successful find the results a win-win for everyone. In many cases, everyone in a school community sees the need for a better culture — they just don’t know how to make it happen.
What does a school with a positive culture look like?
Successful schools generate and maintain a sense of teamwork, order, productivity and shared goals that put both students and staff at ease. Problems still exist, of course, but there’s a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future.
As Gallup puts it: “Engaged students are excited about what’s happening at their school and about what they’re learning. They contribute to the learning environment and are psychologically committed to their school. Engaged students feel safe at school, have strong relationships with teachers and other students, feel recognized on a regular basis and are learning important things that connect them to a positive future.”
Similarly, Gallup reports, teachers who are engaged tend to be loyal, psychologically committed to their employers and trusting of their co-workers, while their principals are committed to recognizing their growth, coaching them and helping them learn and grow.
An article on Harvard.edu explains that organizational culture has much to do with how well core values are defined and communicated.
Real-world ideas for an improved school culture
A positive school culture doesn’t just happen. Consider these 12 suggestions on how to improve your school culture.
1. Address core values and your mission
Indifference or confusion can result when staff and students have no clear vision of the values they’re supposed to strive for.
Your values will be statements that summarize expectations for student and staff behavior; they will clarify your educational and behavioral objectives and may be influenced by broader school district or community values. Your mission statement (also known as a vision statement) will be a public declaration that describes your school’s overall purpose and major commitments.
Follow these steps to identify a mission and core values that are appropriate for your school:
- Schedule a meeting with key stakeholders including district administrators, school staff, teachers, parent volunteers — you could even consider inviting student leaders.
- Conduct a SWOT analysis to determine your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
- Using that analysis, prioritize your goals and what your school wants to accomplish.
- Narrow that down to one sentence that incorporates your main objective, audience and differentiating value (that becomes your mission).
- Write five to 10 values that support that mission, are inspiring to students and will last for many school years.
- Review and finalize your mission and values with your key stakeholders.
2. Build values into the regular curriculum
Create grade-appropriate lesson plans that explain to students what their school will look and feel like if they uphold the core values and mission. The values should also be incorporated into school logos, songs, décor and other vehicles as a way of reminding everyone about their common goals.
3. Hold assemblies aimed at creating togetherness, teamwork and school pride
Bringing your entire staff and student body together for a common purpose can create positive energy and foster a strong sense of being part of a greater whole, whether the event involves entertainment, education, announcements, a celebration or other themes. “The best assemblies will ignite the school spirit, instill a sense of belonging and motivate the kids towards making the best of the opportunities the school has to offer,” advises AcademicEntertainment.com.
This is a great opportunity to come together and launch your new values and mission.
4. Encourage older students to mentor younger students
Enlisting students in older grades to mentor younger kids can be a great way to break down student hierarchies, build friendships and empower students.
“To a child … students just a little bit older offer a strong example, (with) a ‘cool’ factor that seems just outside their reach,” notes Brian Gatens on a Concordia University website. “Turning older students into mentors is a great way to capitalize on this phenomenon, and a supportive, student-centered mentorship program will have cascading benefits on the entire school by … connecting disparate groups of students.” His suggestions for enabling such mentorships:
- Assign younger students older “buddies” who can consistently mentor them on positive values and school pride.
- Invite older students into younger students’ classrooms to discuss school values in small groups or in all-class presentations.
- Recognize and reward situations when older students are positively promoting school culture in front of younger students.
5. Regularly and publicly recognize student achievements and positive behavior
When you acknowledge youth for their accomplishments in front of their peers, you not only help them make the connection between effort and achievement but satisfy their need to be appreciated. Research supports that even small rewards can effectively boost motivation and serve as tools for behavioral change.
Student recognition can come in many forms, including:
- All-school announcement
- Certificates of achievement
- Student work displayed in an area of honor
- Tangible rewards such as donated gift cards, candy or inexpensive prize selections
- Points accrued toward a bigger reward
- Privileges such as lunch with the principal, extra playground time or (for high schoolers) special parking spots or passes for off-site lunch
- Phone calls or emails of praise to parents
6. Support your staff with encouragement and recognition
The need to be appreciated extends across humanity, not just youth. In one study of U.S. employees cited in Psychology Today, 83% of respondents said recognition of their work is more fulfilling than rewards or gifts; 76% find peer praise motivating and 88% are motivated by praise from managers.
Further, working with youth can feel like a thankless job at times. While many teachers find their work rewarding, they may also find it challenging to remain motivated and enthused over time.
That’s why teachers at your school are bound to respond positively to positive reinforcement. To remain committed to their jobs, they often need the support and encouragement of school leaders, students and community members.
School leaders can set the tone by actively listening and paying close attention to staff feedback, and showing support for staff when issues arise.
“If teachers are aware of the positive influence they have on their students and colleagues, they might have higher levels of resilience and work satisfaction,” advises educator Vaughan Cruickshank on TheConversation.com. “They might then be better positioned to withstand the many challenges they encounter and continue in the teaching profession.”
That appreciation for their work will trickle down to others within the school.
7. Teach staff specific language and actions to use
Habits and routines can be difficult to change, and staff may not inherently know what to do or say to promote an improved school culture. Hold staff workshops and write out a guidebook that details the core values, answers FAQs and provides concrete, real-life tips on how to lead the transition to a better, more value-focused school environment. “The process of overhauling values, mission, and vision is healing in and of itself,” education consultant Robyn Jackson once said. “When you shape your work around these things, you will change your culture — and leave no room for toxicity to grow.”
8. Maintain zero tolerance for bullying
The safer students feel at your school — and the more comfortable they feel being themselves, without fear of harassment — the more relaxed the atmosphere will be. To make that happen, you must establish clear guidelines and instructions for eliminating bullying. “When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior, they send the message it is not acceptable,” states Stopbullying.gov. “Research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time. School staff can help prevent bullying by establishing and enforcing rules and policies that clearly describe how students are expected to treat each other.” Recommended tactics include involving staff in development of the anti-bullying program, training them in what constitutes bullying and ensuring they understand school rules and how they should be enforced.
When bullying is not directly addressed, students may think it is acceptable. Addressing the problem head-on will show it is a priority.
Stopbullying.gov offers the following tips for teaching students about bullying:
- Assign research projects in which they must identify types of bullying, how to prevent it and how kids should respond.
- Stage all-school presentations and/or classroom discussions about bullying.
- Assign creative writing projects (i.e. poetry, skits or visual art) on the topic of bullying prevention.
9. Follow through on discipline so students feel secure
Few educators enjoy the part of their job that involves enforcing discipline, but to create a positive school culture — and preserve everyone’s right to learn — the rules must be uniformly observed by all. If students perceive that your system is unpredictable or haphazardly enforced, your school culture will suffer. The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association provides the following tips on how to fairly enforce discipline:
- Be consistent in rules and consequences without playing favorites.
- Let everyone involved in a transgression tell their side of the story.
- Account for mitigating circumstances when making decisions.
- Don’t indiscriminately share information about student misdeeds.
- Apologize if a student is treated unjustly.
- Ensure punishments are commensurate with misbehavior and the reason for the consequence is clear.
10. Address any source of toxicity
In Psychology Today, professor of leadership Ronald E. Riggio defines a toxic workplace as one in which bullies run the show, progress seems impossible and people learn not to make mistakes, criticize or make suggestions for fear of being attacked or punished. Employees aren’t valued for their contributions, motivation is minimal and getting things accomplished seems impossible.
The same can be said of a school environment that makes students and staff feel disrespected or otherwise dissuades them from fully contributing. It’s important to do everything possible to identify and remediate the primary issue or issues dragging down the spirits of your students and staff. According to Alexa Epitropoulos on ASCD.com, other signs of toxicity at your school might include:
- A lack of clear purpose, vision, mission or values
- A lack of honest dialogue and/or avoidance of difficult conversations
- More punishment (negative reinforcement) than recognition (positive reinforcement)
- An emphasis on rules over people or mission
- Hostile relations among staff, students and parents
- Back channels of communication instead of more formal, transparent channels
- Small groups that control the conversation
- More self-preservation than collaboration
11. Acknowledge different learning styles and create an inclusive environment
When measured in 2017 one in five children in the U.S. was dealing with learning and attention issues, reports the National Center for Learning Disabilities. That number alone is a good reason for savvy educators to quickly identify such disabilities, create learning plans that align and eradicate any student or staff biases that may result. “Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers, and with the right support can achieve at high levels,” advises NCLD President Mimi Corcoran. “But a lack of early or effective interventions leads too many kids on a downward spiral.”
12. Enlist parents’ support
Most educators are already aware of the copious research linking family involvement with academic achievement. Students whose parents are actively engaged in their schooling typically benefit from the following, according to research cited by the National Education Association:
- Higher grades
- Higher test scores
- Greater social skills
- Better reported behavior
- Easier adaptation to school
- Greater likelihood of continuing into post-graduate education
You may be able to recruit parents for roles such as classroom volunteer, bus or hallway patrolman or field trip chaperone. “Teachers who focus on parent engagement often see a profound change in their classrooms,” notes an article on Waterford.org.
Lifetouch is proud to partner with J.C. Pohl, nationally recognized speaker, certified counselor and author of the e-book “Building School Culture From the Inside Out.” He produced the groundbreaking program TEEN TRUTH™ focused on student leadership, social-emotional skills, critical issues facing teens and the importance of giving students a voice. J.C. Pohl partners with Lifetouch schools across the country to host student rallies unifying schools.
Ready to start your partnership with Lifetouch?
We can help you promote positive school values and encourage a safe learning environment for all students and staff. Contact us or call 1-800-736-4761.