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Five Characteristics of Effective School Culture


By David Garrick, Graduate School Dean

In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron Ritchhart reveals the hidden tool for transforming our schools: culture. Every school has a unique organizational culture. The most effective school cultures support great teaching and learning. They empower teachers to communicate, collaborate, reflect, inquire and innovate.

Everything that we do at UCDS is designed to promote innovation and excellence in education. In our more than 40 years of honing and evolving our programs, we’ve learned that school culture is at the foundation of a school’s success.

As defined at a session of the National Institute for Urban School Leaders at the Harvard Graduate School in 2018, school culture is made up of connections, core beliefs and behaviors of students, families and educators. It is crucial that we encourage current and future teachers to become stewards of, and true advocates for effective school cultures. This is our focus at the UCDS College for School Culture Master of Education degree program, because we believe in deepening the teaching practice and equipping graduate students with skills to lead positive change in education.

Culture directly impacts the success of students and staff. It embodies the relationships that we create with one another. Great cultures encourage active participation, you must shape it and we all have a role to play.

We have you covered if you are wondering, “where does my school stand on culture?” Here are five characteristics of an effective, healthy school culture:

#1 Attention to culture is everywhere

As explained by author and researcher Samuel Casey Carter, while students do learn during class, there’s also much that is learned implicitly, outside of the classroom, during a school day. A collaborative school where the mission is reflected in each interaction will take this into account.

A school’s culture is made up of the traditions, routines, expectations and interactions that take place. Attending to these factors in a way that reflects the mission and values of the community, in and outside of the classroom, are key to a healthy culture.

Shared vision and high expectations go a long way toward achieving a school’s mission. When faculty, staff, and students are deeply engaged and embrace their school’s culture, it reverberates throughout a school community.

The understanding that culture deeply influences outcomes, and that stewarding culture is the shared responsibility of all members of the community is key to having a positive and lasting impact.

#2 A nurturing environment with high expectations

Culture isn’t dictated by one person, it’s created by a community. Supporting and challenging individuals in a nurturing environment not only drives growth, but ensures that community members are engaged.

A school’s culture encompasses the perspectives and backgrounds of its members as well as the school environment itself. School leaders who seek out every opportunity to stretch the skills, goals, and strengths of their community – students, teachers and parents alike – display a commitment to a healthy, nurturing environment.

Individualized support is important for establishing a nurturing environment that meets students where they are and establishes clear and relevant expectations. As put by nationally recognized speaker and author Almitra Berry-Jones, adopting a student-first mindset and understanding the impact of culture enables teachers to move toward academic equity.

Five Characteristics of Effective School Culture

#3 Engaged staff, engaged students

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, engaged students are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than disengaged peers. A study from Cardwell echoes the importance of engagement, finding that students who reported high levels of teacher support indicated that they also had higher levels of engagement.

The point? School cultures that promote engagement from students and staff display a greater sense of positivity and investment in the institution and its community.  Educators who are equipped with the resources and skills to drive change within their schools while echoing the importance of culture are some of our biggest allies in transforming education.

#4 A commitment to lifelong learning

Beliefs, values and actions spread the farthest when learning is actively happening at every level. In education, every member of the school community should feel compelled to participate in the learning process.  Teachers who model inquiry, curiosity, and even uncertainty create the understanding that what students have not yet learned, can be learned. And that a desire to learn is the first and most essential step in this process.

An established, sound vision and practices that model learning go hand-in-hand with effective school cultures. It’s important to keep in mind that as we learn, culture can change. A school that consistently reflects about the needs of students and staff is more likely to sustain an effective culture.

#5 Holistic sense of responsibility

As stated in Harvard Business Review’s The Culture Factor, when aligned with strategy and leadership, a strong culture drives positive organizational outcomes. Selecting or developing leaders for the future requires a forward-looking strategy and culture.

Responsibility for the upkeep of a culture lies with everyone who is impacted by it. Culture embodies the relationships that faculty, staff, families, students and administrators create with one another.  Schools that promote true collaboration, beyond the simple division of labor, invite contribution from all members of their communities.  When this happens, the responsibility for institutional success is equally shared and attended to.

At the UCDS College for School Culture, we help teachers to build a better understanding of school culture and to deepen the practices and philosophies that support student success. Together, we are enhancing and informing the way schools support students and staff.  We are transforming the learning experience across our wider academic community.

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