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A school principal shares how educators can work together to challenge the status quo and improve school culture and student success.

Four ways to transform your school culture

A school principal shares how educators can work together to challenge the status quo and improve school culture and student success

An effective school culture is a positive environment that supports learning for each and every student. In a healthy school culture, there’s a belief that every student holds unique gifts and talents, and has the innate ability to be successful.

This kind of school culture isn’t always the reality, but as educators, we have the power to make it that way. If we commit to placing value in our school’s culture, take risks, embrace innovation, and place a focus on relationship-building, we can transform education.

Related content: How we turned around our school culture

It won’t always be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Here are four ways to challenge the status quo to spark cultural revolution in your school.

1. Create a literacy-rich school culture

I believe that literacy is the foundation for success for all students. Literacy impacts every other subject that a student will study in school, from algebra to creative writing. And, literacy impacts students of every age – from PreK to college and beyond.

Literacy provides another important opportunity to students: to learn about their own and their peers’ cultural backgrounds. Not every student has the ability to travel, some may not have ever traveled outside of their home state, or city. But through books, reading, and creativity, students are given an avenue to explore the stories of cultures around the world, no matter their socioeconomic background.

We also know that if we want students to be successful, we need to teach them to read at an early age. There’s plenty of data that supports the future success rates of students who are reading at grade level versus those who don’t have foundational literacy skills. A report from the Department of Justice states that the link between academic failure, delinquency, and crime is welded to reading failure, making it absolutely critical that we set students up for success from an early age. When we immerse students in literacy-rich environments, we set our students up for success – making it possible to get every kid into Penn State, not the state pen. That’s our goal as educators.

2. Take risks to push change

To create change, educators must be willing to be creative. As an administrator, I know that I need to allow teachers to be creative in their lessons, curriculum, after-school programs, and field trips. Thinking outside of the box is a major step in transforming school culture. Similarly, teachers must give students the opportunity to be creative in how they learn, how they process curriculum and how they communicate.

A risk that we collectively need to consider taking is decreasing the focus on standardized tests. This is a challenge that districts and schools across the country are facing. We need to be willing to take on this risk, and be rebels. Every student is not going to show you what they know and what they’ve learned through a standardized test. Alternative ways to measure proficiency in our students is critical in transforming education as a whole.

Another challenge: just as our communities vary, so should our schools. Curriculum should reflect the community that the school resides in. Approaches should be customized to the communities our schools serve.

These are tough risks, but they are ones that we need to consider. I don’t want anyone losing their job, but when you think about building equity, every child is going to need something different. We need to move away from outdated models that don’t support the growth of every single learner.

One of the biggest risks I encourage every teacher to take is to be willing to be crazy about kids. Show your students how much you care about them, and do whatever you can to support those students so that they know where your priorities are. This could be in the form of supplying students with school supplies or meals. It could be in the form of a phone call home to make sure that everything is okay. By showing that you care, students and their families will reflect it.

Teaching is hard work, but many of our students who are dealing with negativity outside of school come to us each day because they count on us. Every child deserves to have at least one person who is crazy about them. We chose this profession because we want to be that person, and make an impact and a difference in the lives of our students.

3. Embrace innovative instruction

Just as our society has evolved over the years, so should the way we teach our students. We’re working towards moving away from a lecture-based classroom model to a student-centered model. Developing classrooms where students are doing the heavy lifting, lots of writing, and plenty of reading and public speaking will help instill leadership, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

We must also continue to focus on developing the Whole Child. Students must realize that it’s important to be academically talented and equally important to be able to show empathy, caring, and love when it’s necessary.

To create a positive culture shift, let’s also realize the importance of celebrating. Some students may not get an opportunity to be celebrated outside of school, so it’s up to us to find ways in school to celebrate their growth, small victories included.

Let’s also help students recognize that struggle is learning. In the past, we’ve often taught students that failure is not an option. Instead, let’s be risk takers. Let’s be innovative, and expose them to the opportunity to fail. Failure can be motivating, and is how students learn to become resilient.

4. Build relationships

When we think about an effective school culture, we must consider who the culture impacts. By building relationships with colleagues, students, and their families, and the surrounding community, we create a school culture that works for everyone.

Let’s not be afraid to foster conversations around race and equity with colleagues. So often, people refuse to discuss difficult topics – but if we understand the culture our students come from each day, it helps us to provide empathy and support.

Teachers can build better relationships with parents by understanding the community and culture in which they work. Let’s make sure that parents don’t feel like they lack something. Parents bring honor, integrity, and great assets to our schools. Some parents are working two, maybe three jobs, taking care of children, and sometimes attending school themselves. They want the best for their children; we need to support those parents so that they can support their children.

In my recent keynote at the National Literacy Summit, hosted by Achieve3000 and Successful Practices Network, I discussed the importance of passionate leaders and teachers, because the fact is that we have growing numbers of people who are leaving our profession.

In order to retain the great educators out there, we need to support them by contributing to a supportive, innovative school culture. The only reason that I am where I am today is because of the effort and dedication of my teachers during my childhood. Let’s find strength to make commitments to drive change, be transformational, be risk takers and shatter the status quo.

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