A common struggle for international schools is defining and building a strong school culture – especially in schools that experience particularly high turnover year after year.
School culture can feel far from important when the biggest concern for most administrators is to improve student learning and success. However, many industry experts argue that without it, you may actually be limiting students’ ability to feel a sense of community and therefore, their success will likely ot be at an all time high.
Research suggests that a strong, defined school culture can benefit the following functions of a school:
- Improved productivity
- Increased collaboration, communication, and problem solving
- Higher energy and motivation between staff and students
- Better behavior from students
- More supportive staff when changes/improvements are recommended
- Greater teacher retention
How to create a great school culture and environment:
1. Involve parents in a meaningful way
Parents send their kids to school every day and should feel a sense of trust and community when thinking about the school, its teachers, and its environment. Involving parents in your school will alleviate feelings of mistrust or hostility when things go wrong. Should something go awry but a strong school culture is present, parents are less likely to approach the situation with anger and are more likely to trust that there is a way to calmly work everything out.
To involve parents, provide them with a platform for feedback and go beyond parent teacher meetings. Consider implementing monthly “town halls”, organize workshops around helping students with homework or preparing for exams, etc. These small steps can help parents feel more involved and build trust between families, teachers, and the administration.
2. Establish school values and norms
Often times, there’s a focus on concrete rules in a school. An expectation of certain behaviors from students that either get rewarded or punished. What often gets overlooked is a more formal explanation of why these rules are important.
Consider looking at the bigger picture in order to establish a set of values which then will help define the rules. For example, a rule may be “no running in the hallways” but the overall value may be that “the safety of our students is of the utmost importance”.
3. Be consistent with discipline and celebration
Consistency and structure are important elements in a school environment. Try not to let bad behavior slide, but be cautious when implementing disciplinary techniques. Rather than simply punishing the misbehavior, try suggesting to students that they help you come up with an idea of how to “right” their wrong. This allows for a more positive learning environment and consistent practice of this can lead to more positive classrooms, hallways, and other school spaces.
Collective celebration of good behavior and achievement is also important so students feel seen and heard. Plus, recognizing and celebrating the success of teachers is just as important as doing it for the students – happy, fulfilled teachers will contribute a lot of positive things to your school culture.
4. Engage students in beneficial ways outside of instruction time
Class time is not the only space in which students are learning. They’re constantly honing their social skills inside and outside of the classroom. While learning subjects is important, emotional learning is proven to make students more empathetic and better decision makers, while also allowing for better emotion management and improved relationships in school, at home, and in other social situations.
5. Establish fun traditions and rituals
Holidays are great times to implement traditions, but the goal is a strong school culture year-round, so think outside the box a little bit. Any school can have a Christmas party or a talent show, but consider implementing more creative traditions and rituals.
For example, once a month you could set aside one day for educational fun and games. Get the students moving and working together and give the teachers something to look forward to each month. This can also improve teacher collaboration as they come up with fun activities for the kids.
Maybe the English department and the science department can come up with a scavenger hunt one month. Or the PE department and the math department can come up with physical activities and games to get the students using numbers and moving their bodies.
6. Encourage open communication of ideas and innovation
This is an easy one to implement. As long as you make it clear that you want to hear what teachers, staff, and parents have to say, you’ll actively be encouraging a flow of ideas your way. Maybe set up a comment/idea box or have a coffee talk each Friday morning with your teachers. Consider inviting parents to partake as well.
7. Professional development for staff
If you want your teachers to invest their time and dedication into your school, you should do the same for them. Provide them with opportunities to learn and grow. There’s a multitude of professional development resources out there. If your teachers feel valued and nurtured, you’ll find that they stick around longer.
8. Design and maintain a comfortable physical environment
The physical space where students are learning and teachers are teaching is incredibly important. Everything from implementing flexible seating, creating spaces for students to move about the classroom, down to the lighting and temperature of your classrooms can all impact school culture.
Young children especially are naturally very active and curious, so consider making allowances for this. Sitting at a desk all day in one chair is not going to be a beneficial way to keep your students performing at their peak.
9. Annually review and adjust the pillars of your school culture
Remember to be flexible and make changes when needed. Building a strong school culture takes time and collaboration. Stay informed and keep an eye on all the spaces where students and teachers interact.
Start by analyzing the current values and culture of your school. Define what’s important for you and your school community. Develop an action plan, welcome feedback, and set aside time to review.