Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In schools, this means that all the best strategies for improvement (better instruction, for example) are dependent on school culture. They can’t go anywhere without a supportive school culture. So what is culture? The best definition is “the way we do things around here.” The norms of behavior, the social mores, the expectations for how things are done—these form the culture of a school.
Have you ever been in a school where the teachers and principal are in conflict? What about the teachers and parents? Or new teachers with veteran teachers? Or even a principal and board? These are all examples of unhealthy school cultures (possibly even toxic) that prevent any changes or improvements. Have you ever wondered how you turn around those toxic environments? Or how you go about setting up a more positive culture?
While I think most of us have been in schools with stagnant or toxic cultures at one point or another, the common experience is a school culture that’s a little out of alignment—perhaps too focused on putting the adults first. This issue presents the best articles I’ve found on school culture. The reason is threefold:
- We need to examine our school cultures. Most of the time it takes a new employee with fresh eyes to recognize things we’ve been overlooking. These blind spots prevent us from seeing the whole picture.
- We need to find ways to move our schools forward. Most of the time we don’t need to completely overhaul our cultures. We just need to find incremental improvements.
- We might need to confront toxic areas of our school cultures. Our entire school culture might not be toxic but our treatment of staff might be, for example. If that is the case, we need to find ways to improve our culture in order to implement any strategies.
What is Culture?
- “Culture Eats Strategy” is a summary of Ken Iverson’s seminal work from Farnam Street
- “Leaders Can Shape Company Culture Through Their Behaviors” from the Harvard Business Review examines the roles that leaders play
- 5 Easy to Action Tips for Building a Culture-Led Organization from David Hasenbalg is a great blog post full of suggestions
- 100 Great Culture Posts is full of great quotes about the role of culture. This is a blog full of more links and is a great place to start
- “20 Great Organizational Culture Insights” by Tim Kuppler offers different insights into changing culture
- “The Relationship Between Corporate Culture and Performance” from the Wall Street Journal is a nice summary of the issues surrounding culture in the business world
What does a Positive School Culture Look Like?
- Building a Positive School Culture from WeAreTeachers is a great summary of the reasons for focusing on building a positive school culture
- “4 Ways to Build a Flourishing School Culture” by Craig Kemp is a great article
- Sir Ken Robinson’s “How to Create a Culture for Valuable Learning” is a great challenge to school leaders and teachers alike.
- Kerry Gallagher in “The Good, The Better, and The Best” writes about current issues in building positive school cultures and talks about invidualizing and differentiating instruction. This is after all what every Catholic school should pursue—the customization of each child’s experience.
- “What is Our Culture?” is one educator’s (Dr. Tony Sinaris) blog post about his own school’s culture
- “You Need an Elevator Pitch About School Culture and Climate” by Edutopia challenges leaders to examine how they talk about their school’s culture
- “10 Ways to Create an Amazing Classroom Culture This Year” by Connected Principals gives practical advice to teachers on creating a positive culture.
- “Because I Said I Would” is a one school leader’s (Eric Ewald) attempt to share his own school culture. This is a blog and is very practical advice.
- Find the Fireflies: Help Students to Succeed by Jennifer Gonzalez on Connected Principals explores ways to build a supportive school culture
- “How One School Changed Its Math Culture” on Mind/Shift explores who mindset work supported a positive instructional environment. What if our schools adopted the same approach toward other instructional areas (learning languages, for example, or Catholic identity)?
- “How To Weave Growth Mindset into School Culture” also by Mind/Shift examines how growth mindset can shape school culture
What does a Toxic School Culture Look Like?
- “Employees Say You Have a Toxic Culture? Here’s How to Fix It” from the Smart Brief on Leadership examines how to confront and turn around a toxic culture. Even small parts of our school cultures can become toxic and it’s worth examining how we can lead change in these areas.
- “Culture Killers: Staff or Leadership Issues” by Jimmy Casas examines the struggle every school leader encounters—staff behaviors which don’t support your vision.
- “Is Your School’s Culture Toxic or Positive?” offers advice on examining your school’s culture.
- “When a School Becomes Toxic—What We Can Do to Change School Culture” by Pernille Ripp examines ways to confront a toxic school culture.
- “Avoid a Toxic School By Being a Mythbuster” by Richard Bruford suggests ways to fight a toxic school culture
Other Miscellaneous Culture Articles
- “The Happiest Place in the NFL” examines Pete Carroll’s culture on the Seahawks. You might not like Coach Carroll (I didn’t either when he was at USC!) but you can’t deny his attempts to form a different kind of team. If you want to see it applied see “Lessons in Coaching” which examines Carroll’s response to his kicker’s missed kick in the game earlier this fall.
- “How to Develop a School Culture that Curbs Bullying” on Mind/Shift examines the role of culture and bullying at school
- “Combatting a Culture of Learned Helplessness” by Caitlin Tucker illustrates the damaging effects of learned helplessness on students, teachers, parents, and school leaders.
- 15 Questions to Replace “How Was School Today” on Edutopia gives parents tools to help support a positive school culture
Dr. Tim Uhl