School culture is so much more than academic performance or happiness. It’s a complicated, hard-to-define measurement of institutional values, staff training and decision making, and daily behaviors. It’s more important than ever as the pandemic and other dynamics have challenged our educational system.
To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by American University’s School of Education.
What Do We Mean by School Culture?
School culture has no easy definition, even though most educators agree on the importance of having a positive culture. School culture is sometimes referred to as school climate and it includes everyone: students, families, teachers, and support staff.
Why Does School Culture Matter?
School culture matters because it can help improve quality of life. A strong school culture can help guard against the negative impacts of social media. It can increase students’ interest in learning, improve academic outcomes, reduce problematic and risky behavior, limit school suspensions, strengthen student-teacher relationships, and boost attendance rates.
Elements of school culture include how the school is structured, including its educational aims; the enjoyment and respect of school community members; and collaboration to develop a vision for the school. It also includes the involvement of the community in caring for the school; the satisfaction of its learners; respect for each person’s beliefs; and community values concerning what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s wrong. Behavior is also key, be it the expectations of student and staff behavior or actual student and staff behavior.
Measuring School Culture
Across the country, school districts survey students, parents, and educators to understand how positive their school culture is. In elementary schools, surveys cover familial support; diversity; behaviors, both internal and external; how connected students and others feel; motivation to learn; relationships with classmates; and social skills, including caring for others.
In junior high, middle, and high schools, surveys cover mental health, including suicide; alcohol and drug use; physical activity levels; sexual behavior; academic support; engagement levels; and bullying and aggression.
Teachers Are Key to Positive School Culture
Student performance is closely linked to teaching quality, which means teachers have an important role to play in creating a strong school culture. Unfortunately, in 2020, only 38 percent of teachers saw their profession in a positive light.
Nearly three-quarters of teachers surveyed said their students were struggling to meet existing emotional and social needs, while 58 percent worried about students having more social and emotional needs as a result of the pandemic, and 56 percent saw social and emotional needs as crucial for post-pandemic academic catch-up.
Return to In-Class Instruction a Positive Step
However, teachers were positive about the return to in-class instruction, with 80 percent excited to teach and 75 percent believing their students will be more engaged as a result of being on-site.
Still, teachers have a tough job. They need to prepare the next generation of citizens for an uncertain future, and they can’t do that very well if they’re struggling. That means those looking to improve school culture need to understand the importance of choosing teachers; teacher accountability; and teaching quality, including attitude, practical skills, and motivation. This might be difficult since the United States is short on teachers.
Why A Positive School Culture Matters More Than Ever
Not all schools take the same approach to education, but experts tend to agree on at least two points. First, that positive school culture leads to positive outcomes, and second, that negative school culture leads to negative outcomes.
Not every educator or parent will agree on what makes a positive learning environment. Schools can be a microcosm for cultural debates more broadly. Some of the major current debates concern mask mandates (pandemic related), sports policies, teaching critical race theory, and transgender rights.
From teachers to parents to students, COVID-19 has had an impact on everyone involved in creating a positive school culture. Students, in particular, are now struggling with anger, separation issues, isolation, reduced ability to self-regulate, and a lack of socialization.
How to Establish and Reinforce a Positive School Culture
Educators can take several steps to establish and reinforce positive school culture. They can start by getting everyone on board, discussing the specific school culture during the hiring process, and making space for professional development. Formal training is also a way to reinforce culture, embrace informal conversations, and encourage honesty.
Educators should communicate aims clearly and make sure that everyone knows what the school culture is, and why. They can give concrete examples, be positive, and make sure that everyone knows it’s a collective effort by using “we” statements.
They can also spread culture in visible ways by creating unique traditions, updating the school’s physical design, identifying symbolic objects, and ascertaining relevant mottoes. Ultimately, they need to encourage engagement by all. Connections are key, so they should identify those who aren’t connecting, figure out why not, and then adjust accordingly.
Strong school culture is key to making schools more constructive and instructive places; this is why some refer to school culture as “the hidden curriculum.” Better school culture doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money. Instead, it means building strong emotional and social connections that set students on the path to success.
U.S. Department of Education, Fact Sheet: The U.S. Department of Education Announces Partnerships Across States, School Districts, and Colleges of Education to Meet Secretary Cardona’s Call to Action to Address the Teacher Shortage