June 4


How the Best Principals Build A School Culture

By Joe Jones

June 4, 2021

School Culture

School culture can be a tricky topic, in this article, you will discover 6 pillars for evaluating how magnetic your school culture is, what makes a good school culture, and actionable tips that great principals use to create a positive school culture. And here's a free school culture survey you can use today.

School leaders know that culture is king.

The culture of a school is what makes or breaks everything from teacher retention to student success.

But school culture is also elusive - what exactly does culture entail?

Leaders hear, often, that they need to “build a culture so that the organization can be successful.” It’s great advice, but it leaves leaders with nothing for which to expand…to build. The desire to create and sustain a unique positive culture, especially for schools, is ambiguous at best. The desire to do so is important, the skills and abilities needed to do the work are paramount, but the definition of “great culture” leaves leaders with little action to take.

School Culture, an Arbitrary Aspiration?

The reason that a positive culture is such an arbitrary aspiration is because most leaders couldn’t define what it means to have a positive culture in schools in the first place.

And it’s not their fault.

Much of the leadership training that we get - that exists for school leaders - is primarily focused on student achievement, strategic planning, and supervision. Very little of the literature in education addresses the nuts-and-bolts of culture, and, to a person, the school leaders we support haven’t ever narrowed their current school culture to a set of ideals or practices. That’s the biggest problem - no one knows what “culture” means but everyone wants one that works well for students and staff.

Problem 1:

No one knows, or can agree, what “culture” means.

Problem 2:

Everyone wants a school culture that works well for students and staff.

In most successful businesses, culture is predicated on values - principles that guide or dictate the behaviors of the people who work there.

Take this example about culture from Bridgewater Associates, an investment firm led by Ray Dalio. The principles at Bridgewater are so strong that they either drive you to work there every day or they drive you out of the firm. They know what works for their bottom line, including what’s best for the people on the frontlines of decision-making, and they stick to it without deviation.

For schools, these principles may seem hard to identify.

  Download the Free School Culture Survey

Assess and gain information about the six pillars within your school culture with this free school culture survey.

We aren’t measured by revenues and expenditures so it’s difficult to say if one tactic is working over another. But schools are no different than any other organization where a group of people work together to accomplish a set of goals.

It actually boils down to six pillars of culture that matter in any organization. These are six areas of emphasis, training, and development that we’ve curated from hundreds of studies and resources on how successful cultures support their workforce.

If you want your culture to be award-winning - attracting the top talent from the outside and retaining your best people on the inside - pay attention to the strategies you use to reinforce the following.

Let's turn our attention to these six pillars.

The Six Pillars of Great School Cultures

Pillar 1 - Creating Purpose

Pillar 2 - Earning Trust

Pillar 3 - Joyful Accountability

Pillar 4 - Support & Confidence

Pillar 5 - Embracing Growth

Pillar 6 - Innovation & Improvement


Creating Purpose for the People within the Culture

The First Key to Driving a Positive Experience

Let's break this down into concrete components that the school leader is responsible for:

  • Clarity in the Vision
  • Clarity in Core Values
  • School Branding
  • The Overall Positive Story that School Employees Tell

Focusing on how people engage with their perception of purpose includes the leader’s attention to detail regarding clarity in the vision, core values, brand, and overall positive story that people tell about working in your school. If everyone doesn’t feel their personal purpose and the value that they add to the mission, you’re missing out on both inspiration and aspiration in the workplace.

The key is for everyone to feel a personal purpose and to feel that they add value to the school's mission. This creates inspiration and aspiration in the workplace.

The research is clear that people who love their work and give their all have a sense of connectedness to the organization.

They see the results of their efforts, and they feel rewarded by their contribution.

This feeling of purpose and connection to the work is often described as “passion” for the job or the profession.

In a thriving culture, it doesn’t happen by chance. The leader is attentive to the experience of every employee group as well as the customers.

A School Leader’s Tip to Creating a Sense of Purpose

Leaders who inspire a sense of purpose do two things well that leaders who don’t are missing:

  1. The vision and core values become a mantra for everyone.
  2. Systemic ways to celebrate people.

Vision and Core Values. They constantly refer to the vision and core values to the point where everyone can recite them. If teachers and students at your school can’t recite all or most of the vision statement and listed core values, start using them more often at meetings and in conversations.

Celebrating People. Leaders who create purpose within the culture have systemic ways that they celebrate and praise people for reaching their goals. This starts with a strong goal-setting process that is then supported by a system for ensuring that people know when they have met a goal or are getting closer to reaching one.


Trust is the Backbone of Every Great School Culture

Trust is the most misunderstood concept among school leaders. Principals are often confused when it comes to trust, falling into a trap that trust is developed by “being nice” to everyone.

We’re told to “build relationships, first” as if there’s a second part after the relationship is formed that allows us to hold people accountable.

The opposite is true.

Trust is formed as we confront reality and clarify expectations.

The two primary drivers of trust are the feeling that we can rely on one another, especially as things get tough, and a feeling of mutual respect.

The two primary drivers of trust are the feeling that we can rely on one another, especially as things get tough, and a feeling of mutual respect.

A great culture doesn’t just include an employee’s trust with the administration or leadership team. It is the general trust that all people within the organization feel for one another.

Leaders often worry more about the trust they have with each individual. But organizational trust is far bigger than that. Great leaders don’t just build trust between themselves and others.

They also develop trust among people and teams. They also remove folks who detract from it, illuminating untrustworthy people without haste.

A School Leader’s Tip to Creating a Culture of Trust

The first step to creating a culture of trust is to understand self- and collective-efficacy. Great leaders build collective-efficacy where it’s otherwise impossible to find by talking behind the backs of their people.

Self- & Collective-Efficacy. This is the individual and group perception that we are effective in our efforts to reach our goals. Schools suffer from a form of unintended isolationism. People are stuck working in offices and classrooms, rarely experiencing the efforts of their colleagues. The leader is the glue because she is the one person who gets to see and hear from everyone.

How? Great leaders build collective-efficacy where it’s otherwise impossible to find by talking behind the backs of their people. Telling stories about the effectiveness and accomplishments of people to their peers (when they’re not around) is something that great principals do on a regular basis.


Accountability Sets the Stage for Growth and Development

Very few people will continue to put forth their absolute best efforts alongside others who seemingly don’t care.

Accountability starts with setting a standard of acceptance and a standard of excellence and making sure that no one in the organization falls below the standard of acceptance at the same time that everyone is also trying to reach the standard of excellence. Leaders who are accountability-minded are also clear about the goals of the organization as well as the measurements, which apply to everyone.

Very few people will continue to put forth their absolute best efforts alongside others who seemingly don’t care.

The reason that we bring up goals in the discussion of purpose and accountability is because our supervisory efforts should be based on what we’re trying to achieve and not some other set of standards.

The way to operationalize our day-to-day accountability efforts is through the use of feedback, especially informal feedback. When staff feel that the feedback they receive, both in terms of praise and correction, is useful, they grow faster and actually crave it. In positive organizations, people talk about accountability as a good thing while mediocre organizations suffer because accountability is seen as something that is done to people rather than for them.

A School Leader’s Tip to Reaping the Benefits of Accountability

Accountability must become a desirable feature of the culture. Create a systematic way to provide informal feedback through cycles of classroom visits.

Why a System? As the priorities add up, the job of a principal can feel impossible, and that’s where “systems thinking” comes into play.

How? The best way to create a culture where accountability is a desirable feature of the school environment is to develop and sustain a systematic way to provide informal feedback through cycles of classroom visits.

Support Offers Reassurance and Increases Confidence for Staff

Pressure is a key ingredient of improvement. However, for people to grow we need to embrace a pressure and support model. Only applying pressure will lead to frustration and resentment. You can’t put pressure on people to grow without supporting their efforts to do so; that’s not fair. Support is about having the resources to do your job well and a system that creates open communication about issues that arise so that problems can be solved quickly.

A system and network of support built into the culture is what helps individuals stay on track and creates comfort with pointing out what works and doesn’t despite setbacks. An additional element of strong systems of support is that the school leader ensures that everyone knows exactly what is expected and the path to get there. Supports will fail if the goals are fuzzy and the targets continually change. Providing people with the resources to be effective, showing them the way of the future, and then celebrating success are the working elements and a clear path to a supportive culture and a winning team.

A School Leader’s Tip for Creating a Network of Support

Principals cannot and should not attempt to "do it alone". Great leaders recognize other leaders and empower them to serve and support others.

Mentors. Principals cannot do it alone so it is essential that the network of support within a school capitalizes on individuals as mentors and support-personnel whenever opportunities for support arise. The twist is choosing the right individuals.

How? The support that is needed must be clearly identified and matched with the skills of the individual providing it. Novice instructors in the classroom may actually be the best individuals to teach others how to navigate certain technology platforms. Great leaders abandon predetermined ideas about how a mentor aligns with a needed skill or problem of practice.


 A Culture that Truly Embraces Growth is a Learning Culture

The best organizations maximize both personal and professional learning for each individual on staff. For schools, this means that professional learning targets for teachers are relevant, timely, and of quality.

In our book, Passionate Leadership, we compared a learning culture to a teaching culture.

In a learning culture, everyone’s job is to get better.

Do you have a learning culture or a teaching culture? In a learning culture, everyone’s job is to get better. #schoolculture

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Juxtapose a learning culture against a teaching culture where most or all of the adults approach the work as expert providers versus what Richard Elmore describes as approaching our work with a beginner’s mind.

The key to a learning culture is the professional learning experiences that we continually provide for all staff members. We want to communicate that we are making an investment in each individual, taking into consideration their learning needs and supporting growth opportunities for everyone.

A School Leader’s Tip for Staff Growth & Development

Principals who take inventory of their teachers and staff professional learning are more able to lead growth than principals who don't take inventory or professional learning.

Professional Learning Inventory. The most effective way to be sure that everyone has a personal and professional goal in which we can invest time and resources so that we’re all growing in a learning culture is simply to take inventory.

How? Make a spreadsheet of each staff member, their needed or identified area for growth, and the strategy or experience that they will receive in an effort to grow stronger. Once you’ve provided the learning experience, don’t forget to follow up for observation and feedback. Growth works because of accountability, not despite it.


Innovation is the Pure Desire for Improvement

“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.” We love this quote by Steve Jobs because it is at the heart of learning and improvement.

We encourage students to be curious, take risks, and pursue their dreams. But, can we, as an educational system, say the same for our teachers. We desperately want them to be incredibly effective, but teaching is art and a science.

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations. - Steve Jobs

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It requires risk and experimentation to find what works.

The art of teaching requires school leaders to create a space where teachers willingly try different ways to help students learn.

The culture that is necessary isn’t just what we get from a risk-taking environment, but rather the willingness for the teacher to admit and identify the mistake and improve. That is a culture of innovation and the journey of the master. Schools that are making a difference in the lives of students are not stagnant, nor do they have leaders who accept the status quo. Innovation starts with vulnerability and it ends with something new and different than what we had before.

A School Leader’s Tip for Bearing the Fruits of Innovation

Innovation is about thinking differently. Different thoughts come from different minds and one way to unlock innovation is through diversity.

Diversity Fosters Creativity. As Frédéric Rozé, Chief Executive Officer at L’Oréal USA stated, “diversity fosters creativity. We need to generate the best ideas from our people in all levels of the company and incorporate them into our business practices.”

How?  Effective school leaders recognize the power of bringing diverse thought partners to the table to best meet the needs of the students. Having a key is only valuable if it matches and opens the correct lock.

Knowing and understanding the six pillars is not enough to drive a successful culture. Effective school leaders recognize that we also need to assess each pillar individually and collectively.

When we wrote Building a Winning Team, we knew that to be the case so we created a survey that can be used as a cultural assessment of school success whereby data can be collected to target areas for growth.

You can get the school culture survey by clicking here without buying the book, and we hope that you find it to be a worthwhile tool. Send us a message if you plan to use it so that we might support you with other resources.

Also, I'd like to invite you to consider joining the Masterclass in Building a Winning Team. We’ll present the key strategies for a magnetic culture that will not only allow you to tell your story to attract talent but also recruit the right people to support the culture that you’re trying to build.

  Download the Free School Culture Survey

Assess and gain information about the six pillars within your school culture with this free school culture survey.

About the author

Joe Jones

Superintendent of New Castle County Vo-Tech SD. Former award-winning H.S. Principal. Husband to an incredible 1st grade teacher, & father to 3 amazing boys. Doctoral studies at the University of Delaware with a concentration in Educational Leadership.

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