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Building a positive school culture

5 min read


Schools around the country are being cleaned, waxed, and made to look their best in preparation for another year. It’s about this time when principals begin planning for the new year. Data is analyzed, goals are formed, schedules reworked, communication to parents planned, etc. But where does school culture fit into planning for next year? What steps can principals take to build a positive school culture and strong team?

1. Lead by example. It’s simple. As a whole, staff members watch and mimic the example set by the team leader. The most effective principals are excellent examples of integrity, problem solvers, quality communicators, display a  tremendous work ethic, and model their own learning. No job is too small or meaningless to lend a hand and show that even the small things matter. The principal is part of the team, not just someone who dictates what the team needs to do.

2. Cultivate teacher leadership. Very often, building principals find themselves trying to do it all, being everything to everyone. With such ownership of the buildings, principals often find it difficult to abdicate some control. Highly-effective principals cultivate teacher leadership, allowing staff to lead; often not being the one front and center at every turn. Allowing such teacher leadership creates a sense of ownership and builds trust with staff. When able to provide input, lead professional development, coordinate an event, offer ideas, etc., teachers will take more ownership of the culture at the school. Utilize abilities and maximize the potential of your team.

3. Balance leadership and management. Effective principals balance two hemispheres; leadership and management. Although this balance is often difficult to maintain; it’s imperative. Some building leaders spend all of their time as a visionary, philosopher, etc., and the day-to-day aspects of running a building fall apart. Other principals spend all of their time managing, while never really fostering a sense of vision, exhibiting minimal leadership. The best schools have principals that can effectively balance both hemispheres.

4. Show support staff they matter. Very often, support staff including instructional aides, secretaries, kitchen staff, etc., are left out of all building conversations and decision making. In some schools, they’re seemingly treated as second-class citizens, never able to share ideas, help problem solve, or given the ability to lead. However, these individuals are very often the backbone of day-to day-operations. The best principals create a school culture where these staff members are valued and made to feel as a vital aspect of the team.

5. Make meetings meaningful. Faculty meetings are often $100 solutions for $5 problems. Find ways to communicate the logistical information ahead of time, so meeting time can be meaningful for staff. Utilize this team time for professional development, allowing teachers to lead, visioning, etc. Ineffective meetings suck the positive energy right out of the room. Move from mundane to robust and make the time with your team both meaningful and enjoyable.

6. Address that which is unprofessional. At times, principals are faced with a ‘bully’ on their staff.  Sometimes it’s a group of staff members. These individuals make many people uncomfortable, dissuade people from speaking up, often squash positive change, undermine initiatives, etc.  Principals must address these team members in a professional manner and not overlook such unprofessional behaviors.

7. Show staff you care. The best principals understand the human element. Building leaders that rule by fear are ineffective and will have few followers. Leaders that cultivate an environment of trust will have a team that will do everything and anything to help students. Consistently showing the team that you care is an emotional investment into the lives of your staff. A team that feels cared for and respected will mimic such an environment in the classrooms and lives of the students that they serve. Say please and thank you. Navigate difficult situations with compassion, not as a bull in a china shop. The best schools aren’t factories for test scores; they’re loving communities who will do anything to support student growth and well being.

A school’s culture is everyone’s responsibility, but the principal sets the tone. Principals that allow all team members, from custodial and kitchen staff, to teachers and support staff, to make positive contributions to the school community, while holding those who deter a positive school culture accountable, will foster a high-quality working environment for staff and an excellent learning environment for students.

Thomas Murray serves as the director of technology and cyber education for the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, Pa. A former middle-school assistant and elementary-school principal, Murray is passionate about proper technology infusion and differentiated professional development. He was the 2012 recipient of the Blended Schools Network Leadership Award and was featured in Tech & Learning Magazine’s Leadership Profile in December of 2012. Murray’s QCSD cyber and blended learning programs have been highlighted by, T.H.E. Journal, Project Red, the Innosight Institute, iNACOL, and on Digital Learning Day 2013, among others. Murray serves on the advisory board for T.H.E. Journal and has co-founded both #sbgchat and #edtechchat. Connect with him on Twitter @thomascmurray or at