Culture: The Social Footprint of Our School
By Jeffrey Smith
We all strive for a strong, healthy culture, but what does this really mean? Schools tend to develop personalities that are shaped and shared by the entire community. As people respond to the conditions of their environment, behaviors become patterned and evolve into norms. These are deeply embedded beliefs and unwritten rules that permeate day-to-day operations. The strongest of these norms become rituals, traditions, and rules that describe the collective psychological attitudes, experiences, and beliefs of your school.
Culture can be described as the shared assumptions guiding interpretation, and action for appropriate behavior in all circumstances. Culture is holistic having been determined by history. It is socially constructed, and slow to change.
A strong school culture is said to exist where staff respond to events because of their alignment with the values of the leader. In such environments, teams perform like well-oiled machines, operating with outstanding execution. People make decisions because they believe “it is the right thing to do.” Schools fostering strong cultures have collective values, offering employees a reason to embrace the mission, vision, and goals. Innovative workplaces nurture individuals prepared to challenge the status quo, while also appreciating that along with creativity, procedures are necessary to implement new ideas effectively. A healthy culture is aimed at increasing productivity, growth, efficiency, and higher employee loyalty.
Performance-oriented cultures have higher student achievement, leading to organizational excellence. These schools possess greater employee involvement, strong internal communications, and an acceptance and encouragement of a healthy level of risk-taking in order to achieve innovation. This is organizational culture at work. It is a phenomenon that evolves slowly over many years, communicating understanding among teachers and administrators about the way things are done and how people should behave.
Conversely, an unhealthy culture can be at the very root of ineffectiveness; a place where values are unclear and control must be exercised through extensive procedures and bureaucratic management. To determine the extent that improvement is possible, you must first consider the culture of your school because it provides the context in which the entire educational process occurs.
Culture has a trickle-down effect that starts with you as the leader. It is the glue that holds your team together and it is manifested through stories, symbols, myths, and ceremonies. Shaping culture is not for the timid and should be carefully considered when developing a strategic plan. If things don’t change, it may be because the existing culture didn’t allow it. However, an appreciation of the culture of your school can allow you, as the leader, to orchestrate real and lasting change. Ultimately, when you become aware of “how things are done,” you will develop the ability to get things done.
8 Characteristics of a Healthy School Culture
• Strong leaders with a focused sense of direction and purpose.
• Employee pride and enthusiasm for the work performed.
• Acceptance and appreciation for diversity.
• Regard for and fair treatment of all, as well as a respect for each employee’s contribution.
• Equal opportunity for people to realize their full potential.
• Honest communication concerning policies and company issues.
• Lower than average turnover rates.
• Investment in learning, professional development, and knowledge.