It’s that time of the year again.

Local stores are promoting “back to school sales,” students are purchasing new clothes, and teachers are preparing instructional materials.

Many schools are engaging their staff in professional development before school officially begins. For some, that’s less than a week away.

As a new school leader, what are your key priorities?

I can imagine, given your commitment to improving student learning, that refining instructional practice amongst your staff is high on the priority list. But before you go sifting through data and refining your school’s standards, there’s something that according to research, (page 13) you should focus more of your efforts on 

Instilling a positive school culture.

This, according to research will have the single greatest overall impact on the success of your school in the 2016-2017 school year. 

What the Research Says

According to a study on “Shaping School Culture,” positive school culture encourages greater effort and productivity, improves collegial collaboration, supports successful change and improvement efforts, builds commitment and identification of students and teachers with your school, and amplifies energy and motivation of staff members and students.

What leader wouldn’t want a more energized and motivated staff?

Even more telling is a study conducted by Stoll and Fink that identifies a school’s principal as the “most significant force” in instilling this positive culture. (Stoll and Fink, 1996). The idea is reinforced by a study by Freiberg and Sergiovanni who contend that organizational health scores for schools are substantially improved when the principal supports clear goals for the school that are accepted and supported by the staff. 

What is school culture?

Dr. Christopher Wagner, co- director for the Center or Improving School Culture defines school culture as “shared experiences both in and out of school, such as traditions and celebrations, a sense of community, of family, and team.”

So how do we as school leaders create this sense of community, family, and team in our schools? While there is no exhaustive list of the most effective strategies, I have conducted some research to help you out. The following list represents my top 10. Enjoy.

#10: Plan immersive experiences for new students and staff:

We were all newbies at one point. As school leaders, sometimes we forget what it’s like to be the new kid on the block. Plan immersive experiences that help newbies fit into the culture of the school. At University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, students begin learning the “culture curriculum” before the first day of school. (Eressy J., 2005) These bridge programs help ensure that students will feel comfortable and at ease on Day One.


#9: Make school- wide goals visible

Where do you post the goals for your school? Chances are they are located hidden away in a website or in a staff room. By placing school-wide goals in a more visible place, the entire school will feel a more shared sense of purpose. In the “Principal’s Role in Successful Schools”, Shelly Habegger encourages schools to post school- wide goals in every hallway, attaching student work that demonstrates the fulfillment of those goals. This, she contends helps honor your staff’s hard work and feel a sense of pride in what they have already accomplished.

#8: Form committees on school- wide goals

Your staff needs to feel that school-wide goals are not mandated from the top down, but from a shared sense of purpose. John Brown and Cerylle Moffett insist that if a leader does not get buy- in from staff, their vision will become a “mandate without meaning” that costs the principal the crucial support of their staff. (Haberman, 2013) So how as leaders do you get this buy- in? Form committees around each school- wide goal and asks participants to develop activities and outcomes that represent the fulfillment of them.  Allow time for these participants to share out these ideas with the larger group. This will create a shared sense of purpose.

#7: Start a Book Club

Pick a book that links to your school- wide goals. Ask your staff to propose books that they find compelling. Literature is a very safe starting point for developing a positive culture in your school. It demonstrates a school-wide commitment to learning and growing together. According to Fred Ende, the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for a N.Y. school, modeling learning in this way demonstrates that you are “open to refinement, and new knowledge.” Your staff will in turn follow suit.

#6: Establish 2- Way Communication Channels 

How do your staff and students offer feedback on your school- wide initiatives? Make consistent feedback a top priority, either through direct or indirect measures. Invite them into a conversation that allows for their input, either at a staff retreat, or through surveys and 1-on-1 conversation. In a study by Karen Lynn Visclosky at Rutgers University, she insists that establishing two- way communication builds better understanding of the school’s direction, both internally and externally. This will ultimately lead to greater student achievement.



#5: Celebrate success

It’s easy as leaders to get entrenched in your vision and forget to honor the work that has already been done. Kent Peterson, an author of five books on improving school culture and Emeritus Professor at the University of Wisconsin advises leaders to start the year by reflecting and re- telling stories of success from the past year. By honoring these past achievements, you will create the space to allow for proposed change.

#4: Keep a loyal opposition

This idea runs contrary to many leaders’ idea of how to build a positive culture. How do leaders move the school in a positive direction with loud voices that stand in opposition? Quite simply, according to Thomas Sergiovanni in “The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective,” keeping a loyal opposition builds trust. It also helps bring a “picture of reality and practicality” to your plans. More often than not, it will be these people that help you clarify your vision, and move the school in a clear direction.



#3: Establish collaborative networks 

Similar to the strategy of keeping a loyal opposition, is making sure to establish networks outside of school. These are other professionals who are committed to helping you and your school improve. Most importantly, they will offer candid feedback to you on how to improve the culture of your school. In New York City, Dr. Harris, a school principal, partnered with LaMonica, a healthcare specialist, to improve school culture. Since working together, the school has seen a 22- point increase in percentage of teachers who find the principal’s vision to be clear, as well as a 43-point increase in percentage of teachers who felt supported.  

#2: Hold school- wide rallies and assemblies

How often does your whole school gather? While many schools have a smattering of assemblies spread across the school year, few of them gather as regularly as every morning. In Quest College Preparatory School in McCallen Texas, the school gathers daily to celebrate achievements and emphasize expectations for behavior and character. According to Hollinger, the school’s principal, the “daily repetition of this sharing builds a history of shared experiences.” Traunsa Reeves of Reno Elementary, who also holds morning assemblies, believes that these assemblies give students and teachers a sense of pride in themselves and their school unity.



#1: Become more visible

There are several reasons why for me, this was the #1 way to instill a positive culture at your school. First, it signals to your staff and students that you are available and open. Second, it shows that you care. In Long Term Living, Susan Gilster and Jennifer Dalessandro insist that by being visible, leaders are able to determine if their constituents are receiving the “care and attention” that they deserve. Being visible also encourages you to be more people- centered. At Tahlequah High School, Gary Ferguson asks that teachers stand in the halls between every class to greet students. This sends the message that relationships come first in school.

In conclusion

The beginning of the year can be both an exciting and daunting time for school leaders. There are new staff, students, and expectations to manage. With a #1 focus of instilling positive school culture, you will be able to manage these tasks with ease. Hoping this year is one of your best as an educator!


Kyle Wagner is the founder and lead consultant for Transform Educational Consulting, a group that provides coaching for new school leaders on how to improve student learning at their schools.

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