Making school culture visible — EducationHQ

Seeing the school culture is a challenge for most of us for the simple reason that we don’t know exactly what we are looking for.

It’s a bit like looking for a pixie or a unicorn in some ways. We think we know what it looks like… but have we ever really seen it in person? Are there any credible recorded sightings or at least a photo?

Of course, the big difference between pixies, unicorns, and school cultures is clear. One of them is definitely real. Others? I’ll leave that to your court. My evidence for the claim that school culture exists is in every room full of school leaders I work with who tell me, no doubt, that it’s not just real, but it’s essential to the success of their school.

The conundrum begins to grow beyond just how important culture is and when we need to identify it. I’ve heard incredibly eloquent and intelligent leaders blend into vague “oh you know” descriptions that include words like vibe, feel, and general atmosphere. What is telling is not only the difficulty of describing school culture, but also the inconsistency of the language we use in this pursuit.

And so, why don’t we all agree that there are several potential definitions of school culture, and then agree again that nearly all of them could be considered correct? Let us also agree to put an end to the useless debate on what is right in terms of school culture and adopt instead a useful and visible definition.

I like to describe school culture in terms that educators are familiar with, and to me, school culture is just a collective name – for behaviors. These are behaviors exhibited by the three key stakeholder groups in a school culture – your staff, your students, and your parent/guardian community.

Sometimes they bring up behaviors that we like and would like to encourage or recognize. And sometimes they contribute to behaviors that, at least for now, we tolerate.

And while it is reasonable for most people to categorize these behavioral contributions in these two ways, there is a danger in inferring that the game of cultural leadership must simply be to eliminate, or at least reduce or discourage, tolerated behaviors. It’s just not realistic.

Even in the most functional relationships and relational systems, like schools, there are always behaviors that we tolerate. Consider your partner, your best friend, or a valued family member — and if there are at least a few things that person perpetually brings to the hookup table that you wish they didn’t have.

I bet there are. And he’s one of your favorite people you voluntarily choose to love and spend time with.

Comparing ourselves to unrealistic standards, such as behavioral elimination, constantly makes school leaders unhappy and feel like failures. It leads us to pointless evaluations of our efforts and exasperated cries of “It’s not working. He always does!

A little reality check on behavior improvement. Problematic behaviors rarely disappear in a miraculous moment of personal epiphany. In fact, whenever we see an observable reduction in the frequency and severity of tolerated behaviors, we should rejoice because that is how behavioral changes in people most often manifest.

Your school culture is best seen through the lens of three key factors: language, conduct, and mindset. And your culture can be made visible in:

  • your commitments and staff contribution forecasts for each driver.
  • the case studies of impact and positive growth that emerge as results of a collective drive toward good cultural processes.

So, does your school have a plan for how you speak as culture leaders? Does he have a blueprint for how we as culture leaders conduct ourselves in how we address expected conflict, wrongdoing, and even our pedagogy? And have we collectively agreed on certain mindsets for working with young people that may be more useful to us than true?

If so, you are making the culture visible. And if you find yourself getting a little vague and nonspecific in your answers…that’s okay, too. You are actually at a big club. That said, it’s probably time we did something about it.

Let’s start with my keynote presentation at the Corwin “Making Learning Visible” conference on September 12-13, 2022.

Martha K. Merrill