YARMOUTH – Over the last two decades, I’ve worked in schools in New England, New York, and even a school in the middle of an Indonesian jungle. Each of these institutions varied in its mission, goals and, clearly, geography, but each owned distinct cultures.
This word encompasses not only obvious elements, such as a school’s architecture and setting, but, more subtly, its temperament, its defining ethics and values and the way teachers, staff, parents and volunteers conduct themselves and ultimately serve students.
Cultures stem from the blend of a few big and a myriad of small decisions that community members make and that accrue on a continual basis. But I’d suggest that truly successful schools are more intentional about the choices that both impact and improve the fabric of their culture. And it is a wise investment of time and energy to examine what constituents can do to enhance this aspect of a school, to make it a place that attracts excellent students, committed families and powerful teachers.
From my perspective, a truly healthy culture promotes dynamic harmony between students, teachers, administrators and parents, allowing each group to better live the school mission while laying the foundation for future growth.
Given that people often see issues from different points of view, this goal can be challenging. Yet it’s worth pursuing, because a school’s culture, the way it reacts to both difficulties and successes, is something that its constituents need to be able to own, define, recognize and consciously evaluate.
It should come as no surprise, then, that schools with healthy cultures radiate pride in their work and maintain high standards. These schools also tend to remain conscious of incorporating best practices across their program in academics, athletics and arts.
Other markers: Schools with strong cultures create and maintain great facilities and utilize technology that fully supports learning. And they steward resources to adequately implement their program.
They also have particular ways of having fun, their own traditions that pass their values from one generation to the next. All of these elements combine to strengthen and diversify the connections between every person at the school.
But as I’ve noted, schools don’t arrive easily, if ever, at consensus. So how do leaders best foster healthy culture?
In “What Makes or Breaks a Principal?” — their article in the journal Educational Leadership — University of Maine professors Gordon Donaldson, George Marnik, Sarah Mackenzie and Richard Ackerman describe how school leaders can work with others to achieve this goal.
The writers note the importance of balancing the tension between developing caring relationships with faculty and staff with the pressure to achieve high goals that best serve students.
To create and sustain healthy school culture, they say, administrators must attend to and respect the voices from different constituencies and then “translate their concerns about student learning into actionable strategies.” In other words, administrators need to listen deeply, step into all constituents’ shoes and be active problem solvers who place students’ needs front and center.
School leaders can employ a number of different strategies to encourage the process that Donaldson, Marnik, Mackenzie and Ackerman recommend. The first is to develop trust and confidence through clear communication and results-oriented actions. But leaders need to balance this approach by allowing their faculty the right amount of latitude when realizing classroom objectives.
In my current school, we’ve created a structure for teachers to profit from meaningful peer-to-peer learning in “teacher pods.” When peers make insightful observations and offer constructive criticism, teachers are more likely to improve their pedagogy and keep their teaching energized.
Finally, teachers and staff should be involved in ongoing, productive discussions about the school’s curriculum and pedagogy. They may also help to generate concepts and programs for extracurriculars that connect to and complement academic offerings. And faculty and staff should set aside time to work together and have conversations to make their school a better place to be.
In essence, stakeholders need to be self-conscious about the school’s culture, protecting its best elements and nurturing its growth. Once these standards are achieved, administrators should observe at a healthy distance and offer support only when needed.
Throughout, school leaders need to reflect on their own management and keep a running inventory of assessment on their practice. And, starting with themselves, look carefully at their own influence on school culture, in order to cultivate the kind of environment that all members are proud to claim as their own.
Brad Choyt is the head of school at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth.