What Makes a Good School Culture?
Leah Shafer, Usable Knowledge
Jul 29, 2018
Most principals have an instinctive awareness that organizational culture is a key element of school success. They might say their school has a “good culture” when teachers are expressing a shared vision and students are succeeding — or that they need to “work on school culture” when several teachers resign or student discipline rates rise.
But like many organizational leaders, principals may get stymied when they actually try to describe the elements that create a positive culture. It's tricky to define, and parsing its components can be challenging. Amid the push for tangible outcomes like higher test scores and graduation rates, it can be tempting to think that school culture is just too vague or “soft” to prioritize.
That would be a mistake, according to Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, an expert in education leadership and management. As she explains, researchers who have studied culture have tracked and demonstrated a strong and significant correlation between organizational culture and an organization’s performance. Once principals understand what constitutes culture — once they learn to see it not as a hazy mass of intangibles, but as something that can be pinpointed and designed — they can start to execute a cultural vision.
At a recent session of the National Institute for Urban School Leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Bridwell-Mitchell took a deep dive into “culture,” describing the building blocks of an organization’s character and fundamentally how it feels to work there.
Culture Is Connections
A culture will be strong or weak depending on the interactions between the people in the organization, she said. In a strong culture, there are many, overlapping, and cohesive interactions among all members of the organization. As a result, knowledge about the organization’s distinctive character — and what it takes to thrive in it — is widely spread and reinforced. In a weak culture, sparse interactions make it difficult for people to learn the organization’s culture, so its character is barely noticeable and the commitment to it is scarce or sporadic.
Within that weak or strong structure, what exactly people believe and how they act depends on the messages — both direct and indirect — that the leaders and others in the organization send. A good culture arises from messages that promote traits like collaboration, honesty and hard work.
Culture is shaped by five interwoven elements, each of which principals have the power to influence:
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