Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

Strategies for Developing a Strong School Culture
John McGurgan [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Leadership; responsibility; child study team; authorial schools; child-centered schools; individualization; consensus driven advisory council;  role of the principal; collegiality; school culture improvement; parent association; bureaucratic, collegial, “toxic” school cultures.

SYNOPSIS: This article provides several definitions of school culture. It briefly describes the role of the principal. Three different school situations and the steps taken to improve their cultural environments are reviewed. Failures and successes are identified. 

Strategies for Developing a Strong School Culture

HOW CAN SCHOOL CULTURE BE DEFINED?

No single individual can make a school successful, however, a single individual, if he or she is the “leader,” can create stagnation and an unhealthy school climate. This is a phenomenon described more fully by the University of Texas education department on its website, www.uteach.utexas.edu. In their article, “Understanding School Culture,” the authors provide three examples of typical school cultures: the bureaucratic, the collegial, and the “toxic.”  They describe the bureaucratic culture as the standard or traditional type with principal as a leader, teachers as followers and everyone “goes by the book.” All direction comes from above. The collegial culture encourages teachers to communicate, team-up, cooperate, and grow as learners and community. Parents and students are involved in problem solving. In “toxic” cultures, the students are viewed as the problem. Staff complain, criticize, and view change for the better as hopeless. In this kind of setting, teachers are isolated and deal with all problems by themselves, thereby increasing their isolation and their negativity.

The Center for Improving School Culture which is located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, hosts a website: www.schoolculture.net on which can be found numerous articles on the topic of school cultures. In the article titled, “What is School Culture?” Deal and Peterson (1993) define it as “inner reality.” In 1995, Robbins and Alvy take this notion and elaborate on it calling it the reflection of what the members care about, are willing to invest in, and what forms the focus of their conversations. This “inner reality,” they write, can be identified in what the school members celebrate and how they do it. In the same article, Gary Phillips (1993) defines school culture as the  “beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize a school in terms of: how people treat and feel about each other; the extent to which people feel included and appreciated; and rituals and traditions reflecting collaboration and collegiality.”

Taking the concept of school culture to the next level, Professor Tatyana V. Tsyrlina-Spady in her article, “’Simple’ Solutions of Difficult Educational Problems: Authorial Schools”(2001) lays the “blame” for the development of a school’s unique culture at the feet of the principal, the founder, the leader. This person is responsible for whatever develops in the school whether for better or worse. Professor Tsyrlina-Spady favors the title of “authorial school” for any school that demonstrates unique, successful, and long lasting results under the leadership of a principal, headmaster/headmistress, or founder who maintains a philosophy of strong values among which relations with every individual in the school community centers on respect and caring. Professor Tsyrlina-Spady’s numerous articles and books on the topic of authorial schools contain historical and international examples. Her main concern seems to be not only to inform educators and other interested parties about this unique type of school culture but to encourage the growth of authorial leadership and the replication of schools that focus on the human beings that comprise the school community and then expands that focus out from the school and into the world community.

WHAT IS THE PRINCIPAL’S CONNECTION TO SCHOOL CULTURE?

How is it that a school culture can have a certain reputation among its constituent community and just a short time later be regarded in a completely different manner? What causes this change in regard for better or worse? There could be quite a few answers to these questions, but the most common cause for change in school culture is the leadership. All in the school community hold their collective breaths as they wait and watch to see what a new principal will do. “How will this development affect me?” is a thought that runs through many minds. Students wonder if the new principal will be nice or mean. Parents hope that the new person will be “open” and respond to their concerns. The school board looks for the new leader to make the school better and cause no problems for them (not necessarily in that order.) The superintendent has similar thoughts along with a wish that the new person is controllable. The teachers hope the new principal will be a “leader,” a strong disciplinarian, a reliable buffer against the onslaughts of the parents, and especially be someone who likes them personally.

What about the principal? What does the newly appointed “leader” want? What vision does this new arrival have for the school and its community? The answers to these questions will vary, of course.

Some principals enter the office with the desire to maintain the status quo, create no waves, do what always has been done, collect the salary, and retire peacefully. Others have powerful visions of instituting dynamic programs that will make the school “better” and make them famous. Most novices are eager to share the knowledge that they acquired in “principals’ school” while some believe that they will follow the example of a former principal of sainted memory. In opposition to this notion, there are new principals whose goal in professional life is to do everything exactly the opposite of their hated former principal. Another type of leader reads educational literature extensively and wants to impose the latest fad, regularly.

Whatever the new principal’s motivation, action or inaction, the relationships within the school community will change and as a result, so will the school culture.

CAN WE ALL BE AS GOOD AS THE GREAT EDUCATORS OF HISTORY?

It is the purpose of this article to suggest strategies for creating positive change.  These suggestions for building a unique school culture are for the majority of us who are not a Tolstoy, a Sukhomlinsky, a Dewey, a Korczak, a Steiner, a Soroka-Rosinski, or a Kohlberg. These were rare educational giants. Few of us are able to develop a ground-breaking philosophy and implement it over a lifetime gathering ardent disciples along the way.  However, it is quite possible, using elemental ideas of the great educators, our own vision, and the talents of the staff to make any school into a more unique and more successful place of caring and learning. With that thought in mind, let’s take a look at the story of a very ordinary principal and his career. By doing this, we should be able to identify some basic techniques for creating a more positive culture in our own schools.

Warning! This story contains failures as well as successes. No magic solutions will be found here.

THE PROFESSIONAL HISTORY OF A VERY ORDINARY LEADER

We will begin this drama with some background information on our hero, Mr. M. In college, he majored in English, taught in high school and after three years, concluded that children need to be introduced to a love of learning at a much earlier age.  By the high school years, children seem to have formed definite attitudes toward learning and school. To make a positive difference in children’s lives, reaching them earlier and stimulating their interest in the world and in learning had to be accomplished during their elementary school years. So Mr. M. became an elementary school teacher and earned a master’s degree in elementary education. After some years of teaching at that level, Mr. M. reasoned that the person who can have the greatest impact on the largest number of students and teachers in any school is the principal. It would become his goal to become the very best principal ever.

Most administrative training programs at that time consisted of a collection of courses on education law, finance, management, curriculum, and education history. Most school districts already had lawyers, accountants, and curriculum directors. “What did a principal spend most time doing each day?” he asked himself. “Interacting with people,” was the response. It made sense to our hero therefore that he should learn as much as possible about human relationships and group dynamics. Mr. M. enrolled in an education administration program that focused on human relations principles. Three years later with his newly learned skills and ten years of teaching experience stuffed in his shiny, new, book bag, our hero was ready to assume a position of leadership.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION ON MR. M.’S SCHOOLS

There are three acts in the story that relates the growth of Mr. M. as he strives to make schools into “unique and successful places of caring and learning.” Act one is set in School T which is located in a fairly wealthy school district on Long Island in New York State, only forty miles east of New York City. Although it was part of a wealthy and highly regarded school district, School T had a 33% minority population and served a lower to middle class demographic. The other ten elementary schools had school populations of which 98% of the children were from white, middle to upper class families. At the time of Mr. M.’s appointment as principal of School T, the University of Texas researchers would have classified this school as having a bureaucratic culture.

Act two is set at School R which actually comprised two separate school buildings (a small, primary school and a larger K-6 building) located less than a twenty minute walk from each other in a small city in upstate New York, within sight of the state’s capital. This city school district’s population was poor to middle class and more than 90% white. Most of the poorest families had relocated from their longtime homes in the slums of the state capital 20 years previously when urban renewal cleared the area for the construction of state office buildings. What solved its neighbor city’s problems caused big ones for School R’s community. The atmosphere in the small city became poisoned by a conviction that the newcomers and their children, mostly poor white families, “destroyed the city.”

Mr. M.’s predecessor had served as principal of the elementary school for 40 years and was a powerful figure in the city as were many of the long-time teachers who were city residents. The attitudes of the establishment were echoed in the school system. “These children are bad,” was a daily complaint. The University of Texas would have identified School R as having a highly “Toxic School Culture.”

Act three takes place in a rural, upstate New York school district.  School C had a bureaucratic culture and a recent history of teacher – principal conflict. The student population was drawn from farm, non-farming, and town families which were overwhelmingly white and middle class with a small percentage of poor students. It was viewed by the community as a good school but demoralized by conflict.

MR. M.’S CAREER AS PRINCIPAL BEGINS AT SCHOOL “T”

It is time now for our drama to begin. When Mr. M. made his entrance as principal of School T, he brought with him a number of core beliefs. The chief among these were that schools must be child-centered; all students are entitled to individualized and hands-on learning opportunities as much as possible; children need to participate in as many aspects of the school’s life as can be arranged; and they each need to feel welcome, comfortable, and empowered to learn.

Next out of his school bag came the concept that “what is good for children is also good for teachers.”  Educators need to feel welcome, comfortable, and empowered in order to teach well. If the teachers weren’t treated with respect as individuals, they might not treat their students as such. Teachers, too, needed to be involved with all aspects of the school’s life. A school ought to be a place of learning for everyone. To reach their potential for learning and teaching, all would need help both from the principal and from one another. The shout of despair heard aboard sinking ships, “Every man for himself!” should never echo in the halls of any school.

Mr. M.’s initial action at School T was concrete, efficient, and yet also symbolic. The school had space problems. It was stressfully overcrowded. The new principal redesigned his own office space. What was formerly an “imperial” room almost the size of a classroom but containing only the principal’s desk, conference table, and private bathroom was quickly converted into two offices and an enclosed conference room. This meant that Mr. M.’s personal office would be much smaller but perfectly comfortable and utilitarian. The assistant principal moved out of a windowless closet into the second office. Staff and parent meetings and conferences could now be held with privacy and professionalism. School secretaries, teachers, and non-teaching staff gained an additional bathroom available to them.  With a fairly simple step, Mr. M. signaled to the school community that creative thinking could help solve problems; that he was willing to sacrifice for the good of the school; and perhaps most importantly, that he had no imperial ambitions.

From the first day, Mr. M. established his presence throughout the building. He made morning and afternoon rounds of each classroom and teaching space. He was in the cafeteria during lunch, on the bus platform or in the halls during arrival and dismissal. He was everywhere. It wasn’t very long before the parent association spread the word that they had a principal who “knew what was going on.” The payoff for Mr. M. was that he quickly learned what was happening in each classroom. Teachers came to realize that it was not threatening to have the principal quietly enter their room during lessons each day. They concluded that they now had someone who knew what they faced every day; someone in authority who could back them up with discipline situations; or could suggest ideas or purchase materials to help them improve their lessons. Mr. M. used the daily rounds to “catch” teachers doing a good job. He would complement the teacher, offer suggestions, and discuss materials that might be helpful.

Mr. M. compared what he saw in daily performance with the lessons presented during formal supervisory observations. He was able to reach more accurate conclusions than might have been drawn from only an hour’s performance on a single day. Teachers often remarked during post observation conferences that they were more relaxed during the formal observation because they knew that Mr. M. was very aware of what took place during daily lessons and wouldn’t judge them on a single lesson. They confessed that they told parents during conferences and casual conversations that the principal was in their room every day. They appeared proud of this and the parents seemed reassured by it.

Moving deliberately, Principal M. called for teaching staff volunteers to form a “child study team” that would not only review and help coordinate student referrals for special education assistance (this was already district policy and state law), but would also respond to teacher or even parental requests for assistance in working with a child demonstrating discipline problems, learning difficulties, or one who needed more advanced work. The team approach brought relief to teachers who began to feel that they weren’t alone. The team’s volunteers benefited from helping a colleague, from shared experiences, and increased specialty knowledge. They began to learn more about the needs of students throughout the school as well as the types of solutions developed to meet these individual needs. The child study team became a modest in-service program as well as a collective problem solving group. 

At the same time, our hero made a change in the structure of his grade level and special subject meetings. These had traditionally been held separately and infrequently for the discussion of curriculum and individual concerns of the grade or subject. Mr. M. proposed the formation of a teacher council that would be representative and discuss school wide matters. The council eventually helped the staff to work together rather than as separate interests which had, in the past, often worked against one another. It wasn’t a magic tool and rivalries did continue but less distractingly. These meetings developed into a form of guidance for the principal. Mr. M. was still wholly responsible for the schools activities, learning progress, maintenance, health and safety, and many other aspects of daily life as well as the budget process, acquisition of supplies, dispersal of materials, supervision of the kitchen, and discipline. He was answerable to the superintendent and to the board of education for all that transpired in School T.  However, staff advisors increased the principal’s ability to get things right. So much input provided a clearer image of the school and its activities than one could gain from being an isolated, bureaucratic principal thinking or planning alone in a comfortable office.

Staff ideas, supported by the principal with material assistance, began to change the school culture to one in which the teachers, students, and parents began to increase personal investment. The largest project that the school community tackled was the creation of an outdoor education- environmental learning center in the heart of the school. Two courtyards were enclosed with wooden fencing. One courtyard became a wildlife zone complete with a small pond. Children brought turtles and neighbors donated ducks and plantings. The other courtyard contained a meadow and a greenhouse donated by the parents’ association. The windowed walkway connecting the school wings bisected the courtyards and offered a large viewing area to the children as they passed back and forth throughout each day. They could view the wildlife zone through a variety of lenses and various colored panels attached to the windows. Visiting animals included a horse, goats, opossum, raccoon, sparrow hawk, and various domestic fowl. Each new animal provided creative writing, research, and art projects to all the grades and subjects. The special education teachers used these opportunities to build on the interest of their students. The reading teachers installed an automatic egg hatching device into their center and used observations on the development and hatching of quail and chickens to motivate and stimulate their “reluctant learners” into reading and writing.

These kinds of learning projects along with innovative programs in social studies, math, gifted and talented education, and language arts development resulted in classrooms that were exciting and a source of pride for the entire community. This became especially apparent when delegations from other schools began to visit School T in order to observe its unique programs for gifted and talented students, those in need of additional reading help, the outdoor education site, and the general school environment.  By the end of eight years, and having created a unique school culture while navigating safely through the triple stresses of a teachers’ strike, a custodial/food preparation strike, and a bus drivers’ strike, the University of Texas ranking would have placed “T” in the category of a healthy, young collegial culture.

ON TO SCHOOL R

With the glow of community esteem and staff collegiality still warming him, Mr. M. traveled north to School R. There he was forcefully struck by reality. He learned that he was responsible for not one but two very diverse and mutually resentful building cultures. He hadn’t been told about any of this when he was hired. It rapidly became apparent that he was standing knee-deep in a very dysfunctional school system.  With past success in mind, Mr. M. set out to examine his environment in order to signal to the staff a message about his personal philosophy. It took only an inspection of his new office to discover his first opportunity for such a signal. In the former principal’s closet were nine paddles, cut-down bats, and switches. A quick question to the school secretary identified the items as tools for punishing misbehaving students. One flat paddle was painted with the words, “Board of Education.” This was reserved for birthdays. Traditionally every child got a “playful” birthday paddle. Even teachers, several of whom had been paddled on their birthdays when they attended this school as children, received a paddling. Mr. M. put an end to the playful as well as the punishment paddling immediately.

Most teachers were upset when they learned that corporal punishment was ended in both buildings at School R. They asked Mr. M. how they would be able to teach if they weren’t able to send misbehaving children to the principal for “strong” discipline. It took a few years to show them how they could teach without pawning off their discipline problems onto higher authority. Some never seemed to realize that they were undermining their own classroom control by sending children to the principal for every offense against classroom rules which they had imposed and in some cases were pathetically petty. It must be noted that there were a minority of teachers, most of whom were young, who welcomed a more child centered environment.

Early in Mr. M.’s three year stay at School R, discipline incidents were reduced and the school environment was improved for students, teachers, and teacher aides. The following example illustrates the professional and non-professional attitude towards problem solving. The playtime aides complained to the principal of a long term problem.  Some children were running away from the playground into the nearby woods and would not return to the building for afternoon class. They went on to profess that, “These children are bad. They don’t behave in the lunchroom and they won’t listen to anything we say to them on the playground. They never behave in the classroom during recess on rainy days. All they do is fight. They are acting like this because they know that they won’t be paddled. (Let be noted that a little investigation into past history indicated that the runaways were always the same children. Paddling hadn’t changed their behavior.) What are you going to do about it?” Mr. M. had already noticed the increase in discipline referrals after playtime each day. The solution would have to come from Mr. M. The entire school was watching to see what “HE” would do.

Playtime had traditionally followed lunch, reflecting the theory that children needed to run around and get rid of excess energy before returning to class.  Mr. M reversed the schedule; playtime would come before lunch. This change had no impact on teacher schedules. That made the reversal easy. The children, many of whom were from very poor families, now had a motive for returning to the building immediately. It was food.

Next Mr. M. gave each playground aide balls, jump ropes, chalk, and similar outdoor play equipment to distribute as she saw fit. She was also given a laundry sack with her name written on it. Each sack contained board games and other suitable indoor play items. These cheap items put control into the hands of the aides. They finally had some power. The children had something to occupy them during playtime. The teachers found fewer complaints and happier kids greeting them for afternoon lessons. The principal got fewer discipline referrals each afternoon in addition to the quiet acknowledgement of some teachers that he just might have done a fairly…”fair job” of possibly improving things a bit.

It took much more time for Mr. M. to bring even slight improvement to some teacher attitudes. In a few cases, it never happened even after the new principal introduced the staff to the concept of “The Child Study Team.” The opportunity to meet together and help one another in handling a difficult student was somewhat appealing, but it seemed that a few old-timers were never going to change their minds. “These children are bad,” was their constant mantra. “They need ‘strong discipline.’” Mr. M.’s response was that he wasn’t going to administer corporal punishment and suggested that perhaps they would like to do it themselves. The answer was always the same. “It isn’t my job.” Those teachers who invested in the collegiality of the study team gained the most and so did their students.

Making his presence felt in two schools some distance apart was very difficult. Here were two different school communities; one was poor to middle class, mostly from “old city” families; the other contained mostly “new” (Please remember that the invasion of new residents took place 20 years prior to Mr. M.’s tenure as principal) children  from mainly poor families. The parent association meetings which Mr. M. attended separately were often resentment sessions. Old animosities were rehashed again and again. Discipline problems in both schools reflected parental attitudes. Mr. M.’s philosophy of child-centeredness, ban on corporal punishment, and fairness in discipline matters won over both parent groups after a year or two, but this resulted in little if any impact on the attitudes or dealings with one another.

Daily classroom visits were impossible to conduct in both schools on a daily basis. Instead Mr. M. attempted to visit each room 2-3 times each week in the smaller primary school. He did manage to make rounds in the larger building almost daily. Most days he managed to be present on the playground and in the lunchroom at the main school where most of the discipline support was needed.

The creation of a teacher advisory council was another hard battle with little to show for it. The younger staff members were not on the council but supported it. Perhaps it represented their hope for a future when they might have a voice on it. The resistant old timers saw the council as the new principal pushing off his responsibilities on the teachers. Even when it was in the best interest of the teachers to have input on scheduling, curriculum development, or the creation of a new program designed to meet the acknowledged needs of their own students’ the response from some was skeptical if not blatantly adversarial.

After Mr. M. had been at School R for three years, an incompetent district superintendent was replaced. This new educational leader was hired by the city board of education, all of whom were mayoral appointees, to reform the school district. Things looked hopeful at first but months later there was not the tiniest movement toward implementation of any reforms. When the new superintendent directed our hero to “spank bad children or at least hang a paddle on your office wall to scare them,” Mr. M. decided to apply for the elementary school principal position recently opened in his own home town. There wouldn’t be support for child centeredness in this school district any time soon. Energy might better be spent elsewhere.

CAN MR. M MAKE A DIFFERENCE AT SCHOOL C?

Despite a recent history of principal-teacher conflict which had inevitably drawn in the superintendent, board of education, parents’ association and the entire town, the staff of School C appeared to be eager to increase child-centeredness and collegiality. Perhaps those years of conflict arose because of a conflict of philosophies. What luck then for Mr. M. to be welcomed to a school that was waiting for someone just like him! He arrived with renewed energy and proudly carrying his, by now, battered and scuffed school bag.

On his third day at School C, Mr. M. sent a signal of his willingness to be part of the school community by volunteering to wear a dragon costume and lead the second grade’s traditional Chinese New Year parade through the building. Immediate feedback from parents and staff indicated their happiness that the new principal was really child centered and that those cold, bureaucratic days were behind them.

His first important management task was to present the concept of a teachers’ council of advisors. A “grade leaders” meeting framework already existed. Mr. M. proposed that the council of advisors include representatives from the special subject areas as well allowing for full professional representation. Following an early period of mutual trust building, Principal M. and the advisory council developed into a very strong component of the school community and a powerful tool for building support for elementary school issues.

Major curriculum and school policy decisions were reached by consensus of the members of the teachers’ advisory council. This concept was accepted along with the realization that Mr. M. held responsibility as principal for everything that went on in the school. This was a very important and underlying fact of life for the entire community. The trust underlying the council’s relationship with the principal was never broken and contributed greatly to the school’s success and cultural growth. The teachers were confident that Mr. M. was focused on the needs of the children and would always function in that light. Experience in difficult circumstances proved that point to teachers and principal time and again both in petty matters and important ones.

Mr. M. believed that the pathway to reach the school goals was a relatively broad one. As long as individuals stayed within the boundaries, they could make their own way to the target. Trying to change personalities is difficult if not impossible. His philosophy was to identify an individual’s or group’s strengths and interests, then provide them with material and moral support in order to reach the desired target. Some administrative colleagues who had little understanding of the workings of the teacher’s advisory council saw this as “an administrator caving in to staff.” School’s reality bore out the effectiveness of the theory of positive reinforcement.

As the years past and the advisory council grew with experience, the staff developed innovative programs in a variety of curriculum areas including local history, early childhood, special education, as well as literature/creative writing. The staff worked with the developer of a hands-on mathematics approach to learning. It was supplemented by computer assisted instruction for each child. School C, through active learning and individualized instruction resources, optimized student test results and drew the attention of neighboring and even distant schools. Private schools in the region began to lose students to “C” and quickly sent delegations to observe what was going on.

Over the years, the individual and collegial growth of staff had a great impact on the entire school community. Parents as individuals and through the parent association assisted the school in many projects.

One such endeavor was the Pegasus Program, a large collection of small group sessions on topics of interest to children. These groups included investigation of such subjects as space exploration, craft making, sewing, chess, robotics, environmental education, journalism, wildlife, and many others. The groups were organized and scheduled by the district teacher of the gifted and talented. It was School C’s decision to open all such activities to students who had particular interest in the offered sessions on the grounds that children have all kinds of gifts and talents. It was the school’s obligation to identify and nurture them. Both G/T teacher and classroom teacher worked together to choose the children who would most benefit from each offering.  These sessions met during the school day and were led by parent volunteers, teachers, and non-teaching staff. Mr. M. who had experience with operating a high school newspaper led the Pegasus Journalism Club in regular publication of “The Kid’s Courier.”

“The Child Study Team” concept was a natural winner for this faculty. Over the years, it grew to become a vehicle for building collegiality and a strong source of support for teachers, parents, principal, and students. Attendance at the weekly meeting (voluntary) included the principal, the school nurse, a teacher from the early childhood program, a representative from each grade level, the school psychologist, a reading teacher, a speech/hearing expert, a special education teacher, as well as the teacher presenting the case. Often there were several teachers present who had taught the child previously and at times, parents attended. The cumulative educational or professional experience at a typical child study team meeting averaged 210 years.

All retention decisions were discussed by the team months in advance of the end of the school year. Only once did Mr. M. have to cast the deciding vote when the team was deadlocked over a student-retention. No longer did the burden of recommending a child’s retention in grade fall on the classroom teacher alone. Retention figures for the school actually fell dramatically as the team came up with innovative solutions that often required the teachers themselves to make greater accommodation for the student having difficulties. It was inspiring to see the various child study team volunteers offer their assistance to the teacher responsible for the child in need. With one another’s cooperation and shared expertise, many children were eventually able to be successful.

Following retention or other important decisions made by the team, parents who had been involved throughout the process were usually comforted by the amount and quality of staff involvement in the process. Of course, not every parent agreed with team opinions. When a complaint reached the superintendent or eventually the board of education, the CST’s recommendation and the words, “It is the considered opinion of the staff…” carried great weight. School authorities were always impressed with the gravity and professionalism of the process. Although a few special education recommendations were contested and reversed, CST retention-in-grade decisions were never overruled by higher authority.

The parents’ association joined enthusiastically in the life and culture of School C. They encouraged the entire town to join in the fundraising, design and construction of an innovative, playground complex. The fact that the community, staff, students and their parents, successfully completed this task became a lesson in demonstrating what could be accomplished through creative thinking and cooperation.

Another unique, physical feature of School C was created through the enthusiasm and energy of a single teacher. Her love of science motivated her to do everything necessary for the creation of a geologic park on the elementary school grounds. She organized the effort, raised the funds, acquired specimens, and the school community responded. Today, a geologic park occupies a place of importance and fascination on the spacious lawn between the elementary and the high school buildings. Large and small rocks, ferns, shrubs, and trees from the various geological periods lie along a path through the park. The children of the school district need only walk out of their buildings to touch dinosaur footprints, petrified wood, marble, granite, coal, and even  “bombs” shot out of volcanoes millions of years ago. The cost to Mr. M. for this unique addition to the learning environment of School C was only the time it took to support a teacher’s dream and the occasional truck driving to fetch and haul stone specimens weighing hundreds of pounds.

Many smaller dreams were discovered during Mr. M.’s daily rounds and formal observations. The process of first identifying a teacher’s strengths and interests and then supporting them made working with areas in need of improvement easier. Building teacher confidence was often the solution. However, on occasion throughout his career, our hero worked with teachers who demonstrated a poor attitude toward children, poor organization, lack of teaching ability, or even lack of interest in the field of education. Mr. M. would establish a growth plan with these individuals but some, even after they were provided with peer assistance and extra attention, failed to make sufficient progress over a reasonable time. These teachers were counseled out of teaching or were administratively removed from their positions.

As a part of the state public school system, many of School C’s achievements were in response to state education mandates or school district initiatives. As a result of the collegiality and synergy of the advisory council, the final products, originally instigated by higher authority, eventually bore School C’s unique stamp. Innovative school programs and approaches to curriculum needs were developed by the teachers themselves or were selected through advisory council consensus. Staff “ownership” of the process insured successful implementation of the product.

Collegial decision making was a source of strength for the principal when he participated in district administration and school board meetings. He did so with the certain knowledge that he had the backing of the entire staff. Such support instilled confidence and strength especially when difficult decisions had to be undertaken.

The University of Texas would have considered School C a very strong collegial school culture exactly as many organizations and individuals actually did.

SO, JUST WHAT ARE SOME STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING A STRONG SCHOOL CULTURE?

Although some readers might like to follow the tale of Mr. M. further in order to learn more details about life in the three schools, it is time for him to retire from our scrutiny and for us to look at a framework of strategies for improving school culture in whatever setting one finds oneself.

WHERE IS THE PRINCIPAL?

The principal is a major force in creating the atmosphere, environment, culture of a school regardless of whether that culture turns out to be a wonderland for children, a horror, or just a boring place to spend the daylight hours. The principal’s actions or inactions carry enormous weight for the institution’s long term results.

It seems logical then that a principal wishing to create a successful and caring place of learning might wish not to do it alone. For all the “power” of the office, a principal who battles the full force of teachers, parents, students, and community is certainly not in a comfortable place. Besides, the principal’s job isn’t to don armor and seek battle. The school leader’s duty is to pull everyone together in order to educate the children and do it well. It should never be a personal thing.

The lessons learned from Mr. M.’s experiences should demonstrate that a school principal can be an effective leader through collegial decision making. During advisory council meetings the principal must present problems and offer possible solutions. The teacher representatives must also carry their share of the load by acknowledging problems and suggesting possible solutions. Then the team will be able to prioritize needs, brainstorm the problems one at a time, make the best choice of offerings, and begin implementation of the chosen solution. When group consensus is reached on a solution to a problem, the energy of the staff is focused on the same target. The chances of solving the problem are greatly increased. It takes a confident principal to “allow” staff to participate in decision making. It takes confident teachers to participate in consensus decisions. By doing so, they throw away the “false life jacket” of the “Don’t blame me. I just work here,” defense and adopt the “We’re all in this together” mentality.

When implementing council decisions it is best that everyone operate in the same manner as one would when individualizing instruction for children. The learning style, personality, strengths and weaknesses of each child must be taken into consideration. For that concept to be successful in a school, the same rule must apply to the teachers themselves. The principal and all the teachers need to give one another the leeway to arrive at the advisory council’s consensus goal with tolerance for their individual differences. The marvel of advisory councils as experienced by Mr. M is that the council members went back to the teachers they represented and sold the decisions to them. The representatives participated in bringing each teacher along by providing advice, assistance, guidance, shared materials, time, and who knows what other kinds of support.

In answer to the question, “Where is the principal?” the response is very definite, “Squarely in the middle of the action!”

WHO GETS TO HAVE ALL THE GOOD IDEAS?

A container of “best ideas and perfect solutions for every problem to be faced” does not come tied up with a red ribbon in a principal’s certification package. It is recommended here that school leaders make use of a valuable tool for improving a school’s culture and effectiveness; establish a widely representative, consensus-driven, advisory body in the school. Through the process of brainstorming, the advisory council will generate a larger quantity and diversity of ideas. Through their chosen representatives, every teacher in the school will be able to contribute to the solution of problems. The combined experience, intuition, specialized training, knowledge of both community opinion and the school’s history make the advisory council a powerful instrument that no single person can expect to compete with it, not even the most extraordinary principal. Actually, extraordinary principals have probably established some such apparatus already.

What is the answer to question number two? Everyone!

WHERE DOES THE FOCUS BELONG?

Schools are built for…the children. Teachers train to teach…the children. Principals are hired to lead schools for the purpose of educating…the children. Parent associations exist only for…the children. Citizens pay taxes to support the education of its future citizens…the children. The only focus in schools should be on what is best for…the children.

By its nature, the school’s child study team’s attention is on the individual needs of children. The advisory council must make all its decisions as regards the question, “What is best for the children?”

CONCLUSIONS

First, it is necessary at this point to thank Mr. M. for sharing his experience with us. He was willing to share many more “war stories” and tales from his glory days, but the ones above were sufficient. The reader who would like to learn more details about Mr. M.’s career needs an apology, but the purpose of this article is not to bore people with tales of yesteryear. Its function is to demonstrate several strategies that may help a principal to stimulate the development of a school culture that would maximize the learning growth of each of its children.

As we have seen, Mr. M. grew through his experiences. We all need to reflect on our successes and our failures in order to make better progress next time. Our hero expended the greatest amount of energy in struggling to lead a “toxic” culture onto a better path. Educators attempting to improve “toxic” environments will need to spend enormous time and energy rooting out poisonous attitudes and replacing them with positive elements. It is no surprise that education reformers in the United States Department of Education under the Obama administration are backing efforts to close down schools that are failing, fire the principal and teachers, and hire new or rehire the best of the old staff before re-opening the school. Mr. M. would probably recommend staff (the principal is a member of the staff) training in collegiality, consensus decision making, and child centeredness before opening the doors.

Any educator who is intent on improving school success needs to nurture a collegial culture that respects and values each child, staff member, and parent. This can be accomplished by building the confidence of each participant through inclusion in the process (a teacher advisory council that operates by consensus) and through the individualization of support for children (a child study team) and teachers. When individuals and groups are confident, they will take risks. With risk-taking comes a multiplicity and diversity of ideas. A large selection of ideas can generate some very elegant and innovative solutions.  A few such solutions create a school’s reputation. A strong reputation for creativity nurtures collective confidence, and this positive cycle continues.

It is doubtful that anyone will erect a statue dedicated to the memory of Mr. M. As for monuments to his successes in the field of education, he, like most of us, knows that they will be found in the lives and actions of his students.

John Mc Gurgan is a former teacher and principal of 43 years experience. He is also president of THE AMERUS EXCHANGE, LTD, Chatham, New York.

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