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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Jun 24, 2015

How YOU can build a positive school culture, no matter where you teach

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How YOU can build a positive school culture, no matter where you teach

By Angela Watson

BONUS extended episode! Join Jimmy Casas, Krysta DeBoer, Hope King, and Amber Teamann as they share a behind-the-scenes glimpse into schools that have reflected carefully on school culture and created systems that work. Learn practical, actionable tips for supporting kids and colleagues, winning over negative co-workers, creating change in toxic school environments even when no one else is supporting you, and more. 

This post is from my podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for TeachersLearn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.

Welcome to the first bonus extended episode of Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. I hope everyone’s summer is off to a great start! It feels really weird not to be podcasting with you each week, but I’m using the break between season 1 of Truth for Teachers and season 2 (which will begin August 2nd) to work on some other projects, which has been great. And of course to plan some bonus episodes. Each month in between podcast seasons, I’m going to do a longer, more casual episode where I invite guests to help me dig deeply into a topic that is important for teachers.

So this is the first of those bonus extended episodes, and I wanted to use it to talk about school culture. I’ve tried to pick panelists that represent different areas of the country, different grade levels, and different types of communities, ranging from rural to suburban to urban. I also wanted to have people in a wide variety of positions represented: a classroom teacher, an instructional coach, an assistant principal, and a principal.

I’m honored to be joined by 4 educators who I have long admired for doing the hard work of transforming school culture and I know they’re going to have a lot of practical insight for you all, whether you love the place you work and just want to keep making it better, or whether you have a toxic school environment and want to know how to create change.

Because this episode is an hour long, I’m not providing a transcript. Instead, I’ve highlighted some of the key takeaways that the panelists shared. I encourage you to download to the full episode (you can listen while driving, exercising, etc.) because these are just a few of the powerful ideas that were discussed.

What a positive school culture looks like

(Starts at 5 min 45 sec.) I’ve invited you all to this panel because you’re people who have made it happen and know firsthand what works and what doesn’t in school culture. Many of the teachers who are listening have never gotten to visit, much less work at, a school where the teaching and learning environment is not toxic. Can you create a picture for us of what a positive school culture looks like from your perspective, and share some of the things that happen in your schools that make it a healthy place for kids and teachers?

Hope: Positive school culture starts from day one, trusting teachers, and giving kids a place so they know they belong.

Jimmy: You can tell a school’s culture by how kids and adults are interacting. Does the school building communicate that students are first? Is student voice represented? In our school, the frontline people are all students. Everyone in a healthy culture should have an opportunity to leave their legacy.

Amber: School culture is centered around a collective identity which can be established through common hashtags on social media, shirts, slogans, etc. so that everyone feels like they’re part of something that’s bigger than them. Transparency is also key; so is making sure administrators are in classroom all the time.

Krysta: When you first walk in the building, you should see a culture of high expectations. Are little things fixed and maintained? There must be a feeling of teamwork/family and sense of belonging. Positive school culture includes special rites of passage,  such as kids being “adopted” by older students. There needs to be a culture of respect between all stakeholders and unconditional love from staff. Beliefs must consistently guide behaviors. You have to believe that school culture matters and that it influences outcome.

How school leaders can support staff and how teachers can support one another

(Starts at 21 min) I love to hear stories of how school leaders are supporting their staff members, but I think it’s a misperception that only administrators can play that role. Teachers have more power than they often realize when it comes to influencing school culture and building one another up. How do school leaders show support to your staff members and help foster strong relationships, but also, how do your teachers show support to each other? 

Krysta: Leaders have to view the person first, and the employee/teacher second. Leaders know teachers’ love languages and what fills their bucket. Leaders say yes as often as they can: “you decide” is the most empowering phrase. Invest in top talent instead of managing and retaining poor performers: the best teachers often get no support or mentoring, but in schools with a positive school culture, good teachers get resources, too. Remember that everyone has a stake in building school culture: if your leader struggles in this area, come alongside them and support them. Start forming a positive mindset and coming together as teachers and influence administration that way.

Jimmy: Modeling from leadership is important. It all starts with relationships. Be flexible. Follow up to acknowledge teachers’ efforts. Continue to invest in veteran teachers–they’re the backbone of the school. We want teachers to aspire to be leaders, so we have to inspire them to do so.

Amber: You don’t need a title in order to be a leader. As an administrator, I try not to complain even when I’m tired and stressed out in order to model how to encourage that same perseverance and positivity in students. Whatever your role in the school, be an example of positivity at all times.

Hope: At Ron Clark Academy, leaders do the same duties that teachers do (carpool, lunch etc). This shows faculty that they remember what it was like to be in the classroom and sends the message that we’re working as a team. It’s important for everyone in the building to work with the team mentality.

How to work with colleagues who are negative and don’t share the positive vision

(Starts at 35:35) I hear a lot from teachers who want to collaborate with their colleagues to innovate and do amazing things for kids, but they work with teams that are just hard to get along with. What is your advice to a classroom teacher on collaborating with colleagues who are negative or unsupportive, or who don’t want to collaborate?

Amber: Never join in on the complaining or let the negative teachers affect your attitude. Get connected with positive people in your building and outside of it.

Hope: Find that negative teacher’s area of strength. There may be something that negative colleagues want to do and haven’t been able to. Empower them to take a leadership role and give them more ownership in their work.

Krysta: Get to know a negative colleague as a person. Find out what motivates them and work from there.

Jimmy: Don’t make the work about them; you can only control yourself. What would you do if a student was struggling with a negative attitude? Are we doing the same thing for colleagues? Don’t give up on uncooperative colleagues. Things often work out if you’re patient.


The #1 thing teachers in positive school cultures do to keep it about the kids

(Starts at 40 min) One of the things that I think is critical to building a positive school culture is making sure everyone on staff is working toward the same goal, which is helping kids. There’s a surprising amount of politics in schools that interferes with this, of course, but the most successful schools are those which truly put kids first. Can you share the #1 thing teachers at your school do to support kids and help build a supportive, nurturing environment for them to learn in? 

Jimmy: Honor kids’ voices. Taking the time to get feedback from kids shows them you care and value their voices. Make discipline more about teaching than punishment.

Krysta: Get to know kids outside of school and empower them to carry the vision. Attend their events, invest in them outside of the classroom. Celebrate their progress. Be consistent and follow through on everything you promise. Students are our vision carriers: they make the vision a reality. Teach them about legacies: what does your class want to leave behind for the class coming up behind you?

Amber: Be willing to meet every kid exactly where she or he is at. Getting to know your kids’ hearts can go a long way toward building culture.

Hope: Create a nurturing environment for kids by challenging them. Rigorous, passionate, innovate instruction is important, but it has to be balanced with manners, respect, and discipline. We can’t overemphasize standards and forget about “soft skills,” like how to hold a conversation, maintain eye contact, or give a proper handshake. Academics are critical, but how do you approach people?

What one individual teacher can do to create change even in a toxic school culture

(Starts at 48:45) I’m thinking about all those teachers out there who are listening to this and saying, “I wish I could work with these people! I wish my school was like that!” I wonder what would you say to those who teach in a place where there isn’t much positivity or a strong vision. What can one individual teacher do to create change in school culture? What’s something that you wish every teacher knew and would do in terms of building a positive school culture?

Amber: Never underestimate the power of a smile. Every day, show that you love what you do. The light has to start somewhere. Everyone likes a happy person who genuinely cares about kids and their calling. Be that example and let that light shine through you.

Hope: Do something. That’s very simple but it’s actually very hard. Don’t make excuses for why kids were struggling and morale is low: you can either drown in excuses or take a step at a time. We’re not superheroes and can’t change the world overnight, but find something you can do. Smile at people as Amber said, incorporate music in your classroom, and so on: do something that makes you happy. That translates to your kids being happy. Happiness is contagious. And other teachers will catch that fire.

Jimmy: Start with the belief that people’s intentions are good. A community begins with you. People are afraid to put themselves out there and be vulnerable, but we have to believe things can be great. We have to truly believe that one person can be that change and make that impact, because isn’t that what we teach our kids and expect from them? If we believe intentions are good, then we have to come with a plan, solutions, ideas, and stay positive.

Krysta: Do anything. Start anywhere. Be relentlessly positive despite your circumstances. Your true character, not circumstances, have to determine your behavior and attitude. Find someone in your building or outside it to lock arms with and move forward. If school culture isn’t what you hope it would be, write a crazy vision about what you wish it could be in your wildest dreams. Then, plan backwards. We do that with instruction but not for vision. Break that crazy wild vision down into small incremental things that you can work on, and start with that one thing within your sphere of influence. Don’t waste time on what you can’t change. Be a beacon of light right where you are.

Thank you all so much for sharing your stories and experiences and advice with us. And to those of you who are listening, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What are staff members in your school doing to build a positive school culture? What questions do you have about how you can make a difference?

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Aha, moment….I never would have connected the appearance of the school (or classroom) as part of school culture. I was surprised about the comments on orderliness and cleanliness. When I thought about it, it made sense! However, I never actually considered that as part of creating a culture in your school. Thanks for the insight!

  2. This is my first year of teaching and I want to make sure that I positively influence my students. I really like what Krysta says about being involved with students outside of the classroom, but I have never had a teacher who was like that before. My students are fourth graders and I’m not sure what amount of interaction outside of the school would be appropriate. How should I invest in my students outside of the class at this stage of their lives?

    1. I attend their birthday parties whenever I am given an invitation. I also always attend their soccer and football games and ensure I stay until it is finished to speak with them. It also provides them know I was present. Often they have afterschool programs and are involved in musicals throughout the year, and I show up to support and cheer them on during their performances. Sometimes I see them in church and acknowledge them during that time. Finally, I always ask what is going on in their personal lives and do a follow-up check-in, so they know I care about them.

  3. I love what was said about negative coworkers. Often times, negative coworkers did not start out negative. Through time, they may have had their ideas and passionate natures squashed through bad leadership, workplace bullies, or outside factors. Getting to know them personally, finding their areas of strength, and figuring out ways for their strengths to get used is kind and helpful as well as empowering and encouraging for them! You will end up benefitting too because most likely they will end up feeling good! When we feel good, it radiates through!

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