This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in March 2022.
Schools can be frustrating places for staff and students alike. Everyone is busy ALL OF THE TIME and that busyness doesn’t always lead to the right place. Sometimes it’s just busyness. But great schools make that busyness work. They do it by having a relentless dual-focus on prioritising the students while also developing staff. They do this by building and maintaining an authentic school culture: one where everyone is treated as though they are incredibly valuable members of the same team. And that team is on a journey.
What is school culture?
School culture isn’t something you can define or write about easily. It doesn’t sit neatly in a folder waiting for the inspectors to arrive. It isn’t something you can always put your finger on when observing a lesson, when flicking through books, or when analysing exam results in the summer. But it is tangible. You hear it in the corridors between lessons. You see it in interactions between teachers and students. It’s something you feel when you walk around the school building for the first time.
But how do we create the right school culture? What does the “right culture” look and feel like? And why, ultimately, should we prioritise it?
Do the right work
There are always lots of things we can do when trying to improve the status quo. But which option should we choose? A good rule of thumb is to weigh up the answers to the following three questions and to do only the things you can justify: Is there robust evidence that it will work? Do we have to ditch another valuable thing in order to do this (and is it worth the trade-off)? Is it sustainable over the long-term?
Many shiny new things that schools routinely try out don’t meet these criteria and they are often the things that inevitably lead to burnout and to staff-retention issues. Ignore them at your peril.
Do it the right way
You’re all on the same team, so make sure you leave nobody behind. Leadership is always a delicate balance between pushing on to new things, in pursuit of improvement, while balancing the needs of staff who may not share your own values or priorities. This is why prioritising these things makes sense. They make a difference to staff buy-in and impact. But they also demonstrate the culture you want to build, in a highly visible sense. Nothing says “I don’t value our teachers” like the heavy-handed implementation of a new policy that doesn’t consider teachers at all.
If you want to build a culture of mutual respect and trust, you need to consistently demonstrate it in your actions, especially when it is hard. Otherwise, your mission statement, your website headlines and your wellbeing policy mean nothing. Your actions are the only things that matter. Words are cheap.
Do it for the right reason
If you want your school to thrive, you need your staff to have the energy and enthusiasm to make that happen. You might get away with ignoring culture for a while, as teachers are naturally wonderful people who try to do their best for the students. But you can’t rely purely on the goodness of teachers over the long-term without building a positive school culture where those teachers can grow.
We’re in this job to prepare our students for the world. But the world doesn’t begin when they leave school. They are part of it while they are with us. So we also need to model a good culture, setting it as the norm and enabling them to contribute to it, while giving them the confidence to replicate it beyond the school gates.
As Muhammad Ali famously said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
In schools, that’s what it boils down to. Successful schools build a culture where constant attention to improvement over time is paramount, for staff and students. It’s about the things you do when nobody is looking, not ticking boxes for an observer. Reliance on the fool’s errand of using gimmicks or trying to game the system is to be avoided at all costs. Building the right culture is your best bet.
It’s all about doing the right work, in the right way and for the right reasons. When everyone in your school has this principle foremost in their minds and in their actions, there’s your culture.