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How does school culture affect student learning?

By Melissa Chittenden, Assistant Head of School/Director, UCDS Institute

As an Assistant Head of School, I’ve witnessed the link between school culture and student learning first-hand. School culture embodies a community’s shared driving purpose. Mission statements and values are two factors that feed school culture, and impact the entire academic experience.

Here’s the six values we believe are most important to shape your school’s culture and positively affect student learning:

  1. Be thoughtful.
  2. Be inclusive.
  3. Involve students.
  4. Build relationships.
  5. Challenge yourself.
  6. Become an advocate.

At UCDS, our mission is to design a culture of inquiry essential to meaningful learning. Through this environment, we’ve cultivated reflective, collaborative and skillful thinkers who ignite positive change in their communities.

The success of our dynamic and inclusive school culture has led to its replication in schools around the globe. To share some insight on how school culture affects student learning, I’ve tapped into a former UCDS teacher and current principal at Ascend International School in India, Meg Roosa.

“After spending 18 years at UCDS, I moved to Mumbai to help create a school using UCDS’ structure and culture as a framework,” said Roosa. “Thanks to our teachers, staff, students and parent’s dedication to effective school culture, we’ve been able to remain committed to our mission and values.”

Research reviewed by the Illinois State Board of Education underlies the state’s indicators of effective practice, outlines the direct positive impact school culture has on student learning (ISBE, CL10).

To guide you in your school culture journey, we’re breaking down each value and walking through how to incorporate it.

Be thoughtful.

Pause and reflect on what your school community is doing. Is your school community actually embodying the values set forth in your mission statement? Each year I ask every member of our school community – are you being heard? Through a horizontal, shared leadership model, you can ensure your entire school community has the chance to voice their opinion.

A thoughtful and engaged faculty elevates learning. At UCDS, as a whole faculty and staff, we’ve adopted a yearly theme initiative to create connections across our curriculum and inspire the way we approach and teach subject areas. For example, this year’s theme is Wave. While students continuously develop essential skills, a yearly theme gives our teachers and students a fresh content lens that meaningfully frames teaching and learning.

As your school community changes from year to year, activities and details will shift. When teachers are professionally reflective and acting as designers of learning experiences, this brings shared focus to the common purpose of the mission. Every member of your school community is responsible for shaping the culture.

Be inclusive.

An inclusive culture supports the uniqueness of every student and educator. In Creating an Inclusive School, inclusion is defined as a belief system, not merely a set of strategies. For example, an inclusive classroom requires accommodations and supports, and a strong attitude and disposition from the teacher.

If you can include extra minds in the classroom, do it. Ascend International decided to incorporate multiple teachers in the classroom. This way, the different views, life experiences and culture of each educator have been naturally embedded in curriculum and inspired thoughtful conversations among students.

Transparency and flexibility are also pivotal in jumpstarting inclusivity. I encourage schools to embrace the power of collaboration and have faculty work as a team.

Roosa shared another strategy to get staff in the right mindset. When approached with a new idea, she asks reflective questions, like “does this fit our culture?” or, “does it fit our values?” Everything then connects back to your mission and values.

Involve students.

Keeping students involved strengthens your school community and creates a culture built on trust and respect. When students and teachers are involved in what happens in school, everyone has a place and voice in the classroom. Students who feel valued are more invested in their learning and take ownership over their growth.

The American Psychological Association drives home this point, stating that improving student-teacher relationships has important, positive and long-lasting effects for academic and social development.

To offer context from our school, our fifth graders work alongside faculty each year as a service-learning project. It helps faculty and students get to know our students on a more personal level, which has strengthened our community and culture of involvement even further.

Activities that involve students and faculty reinforce relationships and build respect. Consider implementing an annual project for students to participate in to grow their skills beyond the classroom.

Build relationships.

The effects of school culture extend to student families, too. Teachers must share why culture matters with parents, but doing so requires building trust and credibility. When you collaborate with student families, you can begin to share the importance of school culture with them.

When it comes to developing and maintaining school culture, it is crucial to get the buy-in from the parents of your students. As an educator, it’s important to understand your role in helping parents learn to appreciate school culture. Invite parents to school and walk them through what their students are learning and to demonstrate the connection between achievement and culture.

The teachers at Ascend International established relationships with families through respect, communication and trust, and the relationships are stronger than ever.

“Our dedication to school culture only works if we’re partners with parents. As school leaders, we have to gain their trust and take the time to explain how mission and values impact student learning,” shared Roosa of the Ascend International School.

Similarly, our Seattle-based UCDS program began hosting courses and events where parents can see our culture in action and learn how much time and effort is put into designing individualized curriculum for our students. The same can be said for Ascend International, where curriculum nights and parties give parents a better understanding behind their school’s culture.

Whether it’s in the form of an engaging mock lesson, pizza party or some other fun-filled event, take time to invite parents to invest in your school culture. I promise parents will thank you for it!

Challenge yourself.

School culture is fluid and dynamic, it’s what shapes our perceptions around future learning and collaboration. My last piece of advice for the school culture puzzle is to challenge yourself.

Administrators, let’s dismiss the traditional top-down model where curricula and pedagogy are assigned to teachers. Instead, let’s prepare them for how to assess, build and sustain an environment that’s ripe for creative curriculum. Let’s work to create a school culture that’s chock-full of shared perspectives.

Reflect on your mission statement. Explore what values or goals will help students succeed. Connect with your colleagues to ask questions and exchange ideas.

Change isn’t always easy, but it is worth it. Students deserve a culture that evolves to meet their needs, and teachers deserve an environment where they have freedom to explore new ideas.

Become an advocate.

School culture positively affects student learning, when we are intentional about shaping it. As a teacher, you are a steward of culture.

You don’t have to work in education to recognize a positive school culture. Roosa observes that “Visitors are always commenting about how it ‘feels good’ in our school – people are smiling, happy, open and friendly. That’s because at Ascend, all voices are valued and all students understand each other’s unique strengths. Our culture pulses throughout the entire school.”

Schools are looking for people who can create and sustain an effective school culture. This is work that we are refining and practicing all the time. I hope the above values help you reflect on and grow the strengths of the culture in your school – tiny changes make monumental differences for students.

That’s our 6-step guide to the impact school culture has on student learning. If you’re asking yourself, what’s the next step in my education career? The UCDS College for School Culture Master of Education Program is well positioned to help today’s teachers and school leaders learn how to build inclusive cultures for tomorrow’s students.

Until February 3, 2020, applications are currently free to submit – simply use code: UCDS50

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