School Leadership and Curating School Culture

Erich Boltz and Sean Slade
August, 2023

Originally published in the CEE Blog, this article looks at how culture and structure must align if we are to see meaningful change in our schools.

Culture is still king. Perhaps even more in times of trouble. Culture is the function, the element, the muscle that ensures a healthy, effective learning environment.

Over what turned out to be our six-part blog series on culture, Sean Slade and I, along with guest blog contributors, Victoria Rodrigue and Maria Garcia explored the gamut as it relates to culture. Some of the most salient insights include:

  • Culture is king and the school leader is the curator
  • Maintaining and improving culture is a daily practice, and coaching helps
  • Overinvestment in structure will not overcome a challenging culture
  • Culture eats strategy and structure for breakfast
  • Burnout in education has never been higher. Culture can be both an indicator and antidote for burnout
  • Measuring culture, focusing on empathy, not hiding from vulnerability, and being a people-focused leader are all key
  • Asking for help from an executive coach, fostering high functioning Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and using the power of 1:1 inquiry to start short cycle improvement initiatives are steps for anyone wanting to grow themselves and their schools
  • Naming and measuring toxic school culture will help to address it 
  • Turning culture data into short-cycle improvement initiatives will help to implement changes

These insights, as it turns out, provide us with a path for change. A shift in our mindset must precede effective change, and a mindset shift can only occur through appraising and understanding our current situation. Data can help, but so can conversation, dialogue, and coaching. Determine the skills and behaviors you want to change and begin working on those.

We are in uncharted territory as a school system and as a country. We remain in the grips of a pandemic that appears to be ebbing. However, we won’t truly understand, nor fully feel the impact the pandemic has had on teaching and learning for years to come. As a principal friend likes to remind us, now all children in every schoolhouse have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and so have their teachers.

In the Outliers in Education Episode 10 , Chuck Salina and Suzann Girtz point out the fallacy in waiting to take bold action around school culture in the wake of the “twin pandemics”—the novel coronavirus and intertwined structural racism in America. USC football coach Lincoln Riley in the blog, “I vs. They”—Mind the Gap, is cited about the way he looks at culture - it is job number one always, and all the structure or strategy in the world won’t overcome the debilitating effects of a negative culture.

Prior to the Pandemic, burnout at every level of education was a significant issue. This has only accelerated. Janel Keating, Superintendent of White River School District in Washington state, provided an interesting insight in Episode 14 of the Outliers in Education podcast on how PLCs, when implemented with fidelity and supported by school or district administration, may be the best antidote we have to poor onboarding practices. These practices chronically plaguing education undoubtedly contribute to attrition at the teacher level.

If your school culture was unhealthy pre-pandemic, it is likely more toxic now. Naming and correctly labeling the specific nature of the toxicity may be the first step in improving the atmosphere. Brené Brown explores this topic on her podcast in a fascinating conversation with Donald and Charlie Sull entitled, How Toxic Work Cultures Are Driving the Great Resignation. Don, who describes what it’s like to work with his son, shares, “… I try to remember any time I’m dealing with any person on a team or young person, is this somebody’s Charlie? Because sometimes I get too task focused… I want to provide good, clear feedback to help people to get better and maintain high standards…” His reflection or gut check ensures that he is thinking in the other person’s best interest and not getting too carried away with the task orientation.

There is good news. CEE data reveals good school cultures exist. And in fact, many schools have thrived during the pandemic. The outlier schools identified in the seminal study, Characteristics of Positive Outlier Schools, exhibited three common conditions. One of these - Readiness and Willingness to Benefit - includes building a strong culture based on the premise “All our students are all our students.” Checkout our Outlier Study Practitioner View for key characteristics of this success.

The methods used to improve culture remain the same as before the Pandemic. Measuring school culture, fostering collective teacher efficacy, gathering staff input on what themes need to be addressed, seeking help through coaching to implement short cycle improvement efforts, and using the power of 1:1 questioning to make this work recursive is what great schools and school leaders did before the pandemic. We endorse this approach now more than ever! 

CEE partner BTS Spark provides coaching solutions that focus on improving culture and developing educational leaders. It is not always optimal to rely on an internal confidant when changing the culture, and candidly, it is likely as the leader, you may be part of the problem.

Changing the culture – moving from a toxic one to a positive one – starts with the school leader. If you are interested in more key strategies for improving culture and developing educational leaders, tune into our next blog.