School Culture, 5 Ingredients

Building a powerful school culture isn’t a complicated recipe – it really only takes five ingredients.

  1. Smile Often
  2. Focus on Learning for All
  3. Demand Evidence
  4. Dream Big
  5. Celebrate Often

People First – Smile Often

With to-do lists, strategic plans, and performance goals to meet it’s easy to forget that none of these are achievable without a strong school culture, which begins with people.

Smile often and give hope. Without hope, trust does very little. I can trust you, but if you don’t provide hope of success or of a better future, then what good is that trust?

We’re not in the business of giving degrees – we’re in the business of selling hope. Hope is based on skills, support, and the ability to shape the future. If your most frequent interaction with teachers, students, and community members is anything less than hopeful – then you’re missing a chance to build a strong school culture.

So smile often. Sell hope.

Trust is the foundation of your leadership…when people trust you they are more willing to take risks, to be innovative, to put themselves out there… Because they know you are there to catch them if they fall and cheer them when they soar.


Culture that Focuses on Learning for All

Struggling students, disruptive students, students of all languages, high-performing students, gifted students, each adult, every leader – we all deserve an environment that focuses on learning, on growth.

Failure and challenges are the seedbeds of learning – yet all too often learners (kids and adults) are punished when we fail. Instead, let’s build cultures that provide structured opportunities for failure and challenge.

And more importantly, let’s shift the milieu and begin viewing these as opportunities to learn.

School Cultures that Demand Evidence of Learning

Let’s take RTI, formative assessment, and standards-based grading one step further. Demand evidence of learning as a matter of habit in your school.

If a teacher makes a choice in lesson design or in unit planning, demand evidence as to whether that choice should be repeated or revised.

If a student attempts an individualized approach to coursework, allow the evidence of learning to dictate whether that approach should be scaled up or not.

If a leader initiates a program or strategic plan – point to frequent evidential benchmarks that are directly tied to learning for all.

I don’t know any championship team that sits in the locker room all day talking about what they want to achieve. They get on the court and prove it. They demand it of each other. They push each other to higher levels of excellence.

Championship teams don’t sit in the locker room. They get on the court and demand excellence. They push each other to high levels of performance.


Big Dreams Skyrocket School Culture

Elon Musk didn’t launch the Falcon Heavy last week because he dreamed small – no, his team has dreams of Mars and beyond.

Imagine creating systems in your school that push your staff to dream beyond the norm – dreams that push into outlier performance.

With that said, isolated dreamers do not shape the culture – they impact the school climate here and there, but the pockets of excellence they create do not adequately shift school culture. It requires systems of dreaming – systems that shape a shared vision and systems that create big hairy audacious goal-setting.

Celebrate Often and Solidify School Culture

Systems, rituals, and organization habits create a school culture, but it’s celebration that allows the roots to dig deep and stick around. Celebration solidifies school culture.

A culture of celebration allows people to take risks because they know the reward will be celebrated and failure supported. It is built on trust. Trust breeds innovation and a willingness to take risks.

A culture of celebration is different from instances of praise. Praise can be interpreted in many ways, and in it’s worst form breeds mistrust and jealousy. A culture of celebration is one in which teams achieve goals and feel genuine fulfillment as a result. Their work becomes meaningful because of the outcomes they achieve, and those outcomes are naturally celebrated.

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