Learning to Drive the Bus: 5 Ways to Build a Positive School Culture

Posted on Tue, Feb 18, 2014 @ 10:02 AM

positive school cultureThere’s been an awful lot of ink spilled on the benefits of building a positive school culture—and just as much on the importance of nurturing positive relationships with students. All that ink leads me to the conclusion that these things are important to educators.

But if building better relationships and creating positive schools matters to us, why aren’t more schools positive places?

According to Jon Gordon, author of The Positive School Manifesto, the answer is simple: Building a culture of care is hard work. Not only that, it requires a special breed of leadership—the kind that’s determined and passionate enough to make positivity contagious.  

Learning to Drive the Bus: 5 Ways to Build a Positive School Culture

Positive leaders required
Positive school cultures are created by principals who make the health of their organization a priority, lead the initiative, and are engaged in the process—even when it’s a struggle. Many of us start off with good intentions, but find it difficult to remain positive in the face of resistance and skepticism. Do not tolerate negativity! Weed it out and press on.

Build a positive leadership team
While principals can certainly be the spark for creating positive energy, they’ll need teachers and staff to fan and carry the flame. Invite your leadership team on the bus by setting up a workshop where you create a vision, a road map, an action plan, and a set of initiatives to move the school in the right direction.

Develop a fleet of bus drivers
You’ll be driving the bus at first, but you’re eventually going to need a fleet of bus drivers to join you. To recruit drivers, start talking. Share the school’s vision with everyone.

Conversations should happen between principals and teachers, teachers and staff, staff and students, students and parents. Each person needs to understand the school vision and identify how their personal vision, job and effort contribute to the overarching vision.

Tend to the roots of the tree
In a world driven by test scores, budgets and short-term results, it’s easy to be distracted by outcomes rather than the process. Don’t fall into this trap. Tend to the roots of your tree and you’ll always be pleased with the fruit it supplies. If you ignore the root, eventually the tree will dry up—and so will the fruit.

Weed out negativity
To create a positive school culture, you must deal with the cost of negativity head on. Ask yourself the following questions: How are we going to deal with negativity, challenges and energy vampires?

Dwight Cooper, the CEO of a nurse staffing company that was voted one of the best places to work by The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), asked himself this question; his answer was a company policy he called The No Complaining Rule. This rule states that “Employees are not allowed to mindlessly complain to their co-workers. If they have a complaint, they can take it to a manager or someone who can do something about the problem, BUT they must also offer one or two possible solutions.”

Give this rule a try: it may lead to new ideas, innovation and success.  

Stay tuned for part II; we have five more tips to share with you next week!


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Topics: Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, educational leaders, new principal, excellent leaders, school culture, positive school culture, school climate

8 questions to help educators assess the health of their classrooms

Posted on Fri, Sep 13, 2013 @ 16:09 PM

school cultureBeing an educator entails many things, but at its core, education is really about relationships. Most of us believe this and while we do our best to connect with all of our students, the pressures of our profession—a humdrum of rhetoric about adequate yearly progress (AYP) and standardized test scores come to mind—can easily get in the way.

But as Baruti Kafele, principal and author of Closing the Attitude Gap, suggests, neglecting relationships can be costly not only to the health of our school culture, but also to the academic success of our students.

For Kafele, there is an inextricable link between the “mood of [the] classroom” and “whether or not students can learn at optimal levels.” Research bolsters Kafele’s argument, but how do we maintain the health and heighten the mood in our schools? First we must assess the climate of our school and classrooms; one way to do this is by asking yourself the following questions Kafele outlines in chapter two of his book.

8 questions to help educators assess the health of their classrooms

What do the students hear when they enter the classroom?
What students hear directly connects to the initial interactions that occur between them and you. How do you speak to the students, and in what tone? How are the students interacting with one another? Are they cordial, orderly, and productive? Do you see any evidence of care and compassion? What kind of language are the students using? It is acceptable or unacceptable?

What do students feel when they enter the classroom?
Take a look at your classroom and reflect on what you feel. If it helps, pretend that you are a student. What emotions do you experience? Is the classroom a relaxed environment? How does the physical classroom reflect the personality of the teacher? Is the classroom conducive to learning? Do you feel comfortable? Is there a possibility that bullying exists in the environment that you may not be aware of? Do the students feel valued, appreciated, and respected in this environment? Do they feel safe and free from harassment? Do they feel good about themselves?

What is the overall experience of the classroom?
What is it like to be a student in this classroom? Do the students look forward to being in this classroom every day? Is the instruction student-centered? Is it rigorous? Are students learning or simply going through the motions of learning? What kind of impression does the experience have on the students? Are students able to learn without peer pressure to conform to counterproductive expectations?

Do I believe in my students?
This strand focuses on the teacher's attitude toward his or her students. You cannot effectively teach and inspire students if you do not believe in them.

Do I know my students?
This strand focuses on the teacher's relationship with his or her students. You cannot effectively teach and inspire students if you do not know them.

Do I care about my students?
This strand focuses on the teacher's care, concern, and compassion for his or her students. You cannot effectively teach and inspire students if you do not care about them.

Do I provide my students with an environment of excellence?
This strand focuses on the classroom environment that the teacher has created. You cannot effectively teach and inspire students if the classroom environment is not conducive to learning.

Do I realize who my students are?
This strand focuses on culturally responsive teaching and learning. You cannot effectively teach and inspire students if you do not take into account who they are historically and culturally.

If you’re looking for more ways to strengthen teacher-student relationships, you might be interested in a couple of our recent blogs, 5 Ways to Build a Relationship-Driven Classroom and 5 More Ways to Build a Relationship-Driven Classroom.



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Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, effective principal, educational leaders, Role of Principal in School, school culture

Assessing the health of your school's culture

Posted on Fri, Aug 09, 2013 @ 14:08 PM

school cultureMost of us resist change. When it’s subtle, we may simply grumble at the lack of familiarity or the disruption of a comfortable routine. But when change is drastic, those who are directly affected may vehemently justify their routines (since this is, after all, the way things have always been done!), protest, even threaten mutiny.

This sort of response may be natural, yet it is rarely in a school’s best interest.

Before we begin making changes, however, we must resist the urge to oversimplify the health of a culture by categorizing it as “good” or “bad.” Rarely is it that simple. In their book, How to Help Your School Thrive Without Breaking the Bank, John Gabriel and Paul Farmer describe three types of culture: benign, ill, and healthy; we found this to be helpful and have described each category below.

Benign culture
This is the most common school culture. While not “detrimental,” this type of culture is, as Gabriel and Farmer suggest, “stagnant and in need of exercise.” In a benign school culture,

  • Staff members assess one another primarily according to friendliness
  • Most teachers have never observed their peers’ professional capacity
  • Most conversations lack substance and rarely relate to professional content
  • Members are content and believe that student work, teachers, and administration are all “good enough”
  • There is little to no talk about action or improvement
  • Students meet, but do not exceed, expectations
  • Meetings are polite, but rarely consist of more than determining who is teaching what and when
  • Members are left to do what they want and often shielded by pedagogical or philosophical initiatives that might disrupt their routine
  • Students may have a respectable passing rate, but there is no initiative to exceed the status quo
  • New teachers with new ideas are outnumbered; their ideas are forgotten or ignored

Ill Culture
Fewer schools find themselves on this end of the spectrum, but when they do, this is what you may find:

  • Cynicism, pessimism and distrust are rampant
  • There is a lack of cohesion and a unified set of goals
  • There is a lack of common understanding on the purposes of classes, teams, and departments
  • Teachers act alone
  • Departments may even campaign against fellow departments or department members
  • Leadership is held by a few and is not exercised prudently or justly
  • Decisions are unsupported because leadership does not communicate them to staff, seek “buy-in,” or even take ownership of them
  • Leadership uses power to drive their own agendas and punish rather than explore possibilities and build support
  • Turnover is high and veterans tend to perpetuate a poisonous culture because they outlast newcomers

Healthy Culture
In a healthy school culture,

  • People work across departments and professional roles toward common goals
  • Staff members are collaborative and reflective risk takers: They want to fix things that aren’t working and improve things that are
  • Educators engage in honest, professional dialogue on curriculum, assessment, data, interventions, and remediation
  • Members leave meetings having learned something new
  • The meeting room is a safe space where members are free and encouraged to be vulnerable, honest and reflective
  • Teachers willingly (and of their own volition) consult one another when they encounter problems or need new ideas
  • Practices are transparent and grounded in research
  • Leadership is horizontal: staff members are given the opportunity to explore and discuss decisions
  • The principal empowers the assistant principal to make decisions, lead initiatives, and speak and act on his behalf
  • An administrative leadership team meets to discuss books and articles that have been assigned to them by the principal
  • The school’s departments generally follow the administrative team’s example of sharing leadership and encouraging professional growth
  • Each departments guiding vision and mission statements were developed through honest, stimulating, and boundary-pushing dialogues

Like organisms, schools are, as Gabriel and Farmer suggests, “not unlike living, breathing organisms”: they must adapt to the environment or they will die. Change may not come easy, but it is integral to the success and health of our schools.  


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Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, Certificate in HR Management, Becoming an effective principal, aspiring school administrator, school culture

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