How to Create a School Culture That Works

The term school culture means different things to different people. For some it encompasses school activities, organization, sports teams, lunchroom talk, dress codes, holidays, and onsite activities. For others, school culture is a reflection of student activities, attitudes, beliefs, values, and socialization. A school culture is largely influenced by a school’s specific institutional background, from its historical origins, existing cultural and social practices, parents, students, teachers, administrators, other staff members, and external influences like…

The school culture most observers would likely think of is the “campus culture.” But the term school culture can be more than just what students see when they walk onto your campus. Culture is influenced by institutions of higher education, which are grounded in their history and missions. Traditionally, students lived and studied on their own, with little or no ties to their communities outside of school. Over time, these ties have loosened as students have developed their own vision of what the institution of higher learning is not.

Institutional cultures, which are the shared beliefs, values, practices, relationships, activities, and interactions of a school environment, shape and influence its unique climate. The shared vision for the institution has become the basis of its shared climate. And this vision is often continuously shaped and reshaped by changing attitudes, interests, situations, and behaviors of its inhabitants. The climate is affected by changing perceptions about who belongs, who is allowed to belong, who is capable of learning, who is competent of learning, and who is capable of being successful. These perceptions also have an effect on the kind of relationships and achievements students have and the kind of behaviors that schools expect from their students. In short, schools are constantly trying to determine what kinds of behaviors are most consistent with their vision of the institution and determining what kinds of behaviors are not.

School culture is a complex network of beliefs and assumptions. Because these beliefs and assumptions are rooted in personal experiences over time, changes over time can shape the very basis of these beliefs and their subsequent effects on school functions. And because these beliefs are themselves formed by individuals, changes in these beliefs can also be influenced by changes in the individuals themselves. This makes for a self-sustaining process, in which individual beliefs about school climate change to align with those of other individuals and the experiences they have.

A school culture that is based on beliefs and experiences from the faculty and staff may not be sustainable. Change the beliefs or the contexts under which these beliefs and actions are performed, and you have a different climate. For example, if there is a strong pressure to promote the achievement of minority goals within a climate that upholds the existence of white supremacy, then the presence of these values will likely not be sustainable.

But change cultural changes within your school culture without changing the values of your faculty and staff is nearly impossible. There must be an awareness among school leaders that a specific climate is important for school growth and success. If leaders are not aware of the existence of a particular set of values that are at odds with the kind of environment they want to create, then they will likely not be able to overcome the problem. Effective school leaders must know that they need to recognize the existence of potential conflicts and potential sources of conflict before they take action. Recognizing the potential for cultural changes can be one of the most important challenges for school leaders.