school culture

4 ways to ensure a successful school culture initiative

How can school leaders create a consistent, student-centered, and restorative approach to their school culture initiative?

A growing body of research confirms that school culture significantly influences student learning. Indeed, it’s in the culture that classrooms build their success. Yet, too many schools accept pockets of excellence. Why is it acceptable for some classrooms to implement best practices for students while others are allowed to opt out?

Culture is the collective beliefs and commitments that enable individuals, who might otherwise only be loosely connected, to rally around an effort. The importance of this cultural “glue” becomes clear when examining student behavior. The more consistent schools are with expectations, discipline, and celebratory rituals, the better students understand what’s expected and the better they become at meeting those expectations.

Conversely, individual, classroom-based approaches to behavior interventions are more likely to result in inconsistent student expectations and a lack of teacher-to-teacher conversations, leading to silos rather than overall excellence.

The advantages that arise from commonly held expectations and a supportive approach to reinforcing those expectations are numerous — from fewer disruptions, disciplinary actions, and suspensions to increases in instructional time, student learning, and staff morale.

Following are four ways that school leaders can bring about these benefits by creating a consistent, student-centered, and restorative approach to their school culture initiative.

1. Collaboratively Create a Vision for Culture Excellence

An invested, purpose-driven staff is essential to bring about a positive school culture. The best way to obtain teacher buy-in is by incorporating teacher voice from the onset. The more teachers feel they have a say and a valid part in the cultural change, the more likely they are to commit to being champions of that change.

  • Conduct a school culture audit

For these discussions to be productive, it is vital to gather an in-depth understanding of the culture. One way to achieve this is through a culture audit, which can be conducted by district or school administrators or an impartial, professionally-trained third party. Interview staff and students about school history, current practices and attitudes toward student behavior, and beliefs about the future. Examine existing culture data and school-wide Tier I behavior support systems. This will provide a concrete idea about what will be addressed during the change initiative.

  • Establish the vision

Once the culture audit is underway, create a culture leadership team of leaders and faculty who will put together a vision for school-wide culture excellence based on their shared beliefs. The vision should re-imagine the school as the team wishes it to be, complete with details of the way the new culture will look, sound, and feel. The team should also determine what common behaviors adults across the school will reinforce. Put the plan in writing and engage all staff with the plan to build consensus and remove the possibility of inconsistent classroom-based actions.

  • Plan systems to motivate positive choices

Next, the culture leadership team should design recognition systems and incentives for positive behavior. Define the protocol for teachers to follow when corrective action is necessary and a negative consequence is earned, as well as the means for monitoring the progress of any restorative practices they adopt. Throughout the process, create opportunities for teacher input regarding the rituals, routines, systems, and behavioral expectations being defined and designed.

(Next page: 3 more steps to a successful school culture initiative)

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