Relationships come before everything. Building a positive environment in individual classrooms and throughout your whole school is a matter of cultivating and maintaining relationships. It takes commitment and consistency from the whole team—administrators, teachers and support staff. You can make it happen, though, even in the most challenging school environments.
Here are eight ways for improving school culture based on the Boys Town Education Model, which has helped hundreds of troubled schools turn their school culture around.
1. Build strong relationships
Your success at creating a well-managed school depends more than anything else on the quality of the relationships that teachers forge with students. Staff-student relationships influence everything—from the social climate to the individual performances of your students. The research on this is clear. When students feel liked and respected by their teachers, they find more success in school, academically and behaviorally. Conversely, when interpersonal relationships are weak and trust is lacking, fear and failure will likely start to define school culture.
Building strong relationships needs to be a whole school priority. How do you do it? Teachers need to have time to talk to their students in and out of the classroom. The goal should be for every adult in the building to maintain a high rate of positive interactions with students and to show genuine interest in their lives, their activities, their goals and their struggles.
2. Teach essential social skills
How to share, how to listen to others, how to disagree respectfully—these are the kind of essential social skills we expect our students to have. But the truth is they may not have learned them. Whether it’s 1st grade or 11th grade, we need to be prepared to teach appropriate social and emotional behaviors.
“You can’t hold kids accountable for something you’ve never told them,” says Erin Green, Director of National Services Operations at Boys Town. “Behavior should be treated like academics, and students should be taught the skills they need to execute desired behaviors.” These behaviors and values include honesty, sensitivity, concern and respect for others, a sense of humor, reliability, and so on. Together as a staff, you should identify the social skills you want your students to have and the step-by-step routines to teach them.
3. Get on the same page
Every classroom environment contributes to your school culture. Sometimes, for real change to occur with students, it’s the adults who have to change first. Together as a staff, you need to create a shared vision of your school. That means developing consistent school rules and ways of defining and meeting student behavior. When students believe that the rules are fair and consistently enforced, it goes a long way toward building trust. Inappropriate behavior shouldn’t be laughed off in one classroom and punished in another.
4. Be role models
At school, students learn by watching just as they learn by doing. Observing the actions of others influences how they respond to their environment and cope with unfamiliar situations. Think about what messages your staff’s behavior communicates. For example, research has shown that when a student is rejected by peers, the rejection is more likely to stop if the teacher models warm and friendly behavior to the isolated student. The opposite is also true. As educators, you set the tone.
5. Clarify classroom and school rules
Classroom rules communicate your expectations to your students. They tell students “this is the positive environment you deserve. This is the standard of behavior we know you can achieve.”
Positive rules help create a predictable, stable environment that is more conducive to healthy interactions. Ideally, classroom rules are simple and declarative (e.g., “Be respectful and kind”). And they don’t need to address every possible problem. You don’t need a rule about gum chewing or water bottle use, for instance—your policies on these issues should be clear from your overarching expectations for good behavior. Most important, rules need to be consistent across the building. The same expectations need to apply in the classroom, the gym and the cafeteria.
6. Teach all students problem solving
Problems will always come up inside and outside of school. Students are much more likely to recognize and resolve them appropriately when we teach them how to do so. Problem solving can also be used retrospectively (with the luxury of hindsight) to help students make better decisions in the future. The Boys Town Education Model uses the SODAS method to teach students the general skill of problem solving.
SODAS is an acronym for the following steps:
S – Define the SITUATION.
O – Examine OPTIONS available to deal with the problem.
D – Determine the DISADVANTAGES of each option.
A – Determine the ADVANTAGES of each option.
S – Decide on a SOLUTION and practice.
7. Set appropriate consequences
Establishing classroom and school-wide rules and procedures is an important step in any effort to bring more structure to your school. But of course, students will push the limits and you’ll still need consequences. Effective consequences show young people the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of their choices or actions. Consequences need to be appropriate, immediate and consistent. Equally important, they need to be delivered with empathy, not in anger.
You might think about the current consequences for inappropriate behaviors and how their connections to the offenses can be strengthened where necessary. For example, having a student serve detention for misbehaving on the bus isn’t necessarily the best consequence. Instead, the student might write a letter of apology to the bus driver and serve as “bus monitor” for one week. You might even consider Restorative Discipline as a school-wide program.
8. Praise students for good choices
Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Many of our students, especially those who struggle, don’t receive nearly enough positive feedback in the classroom or in their personal lives.
“When kids are taught with a proactive, praise-heavy approach, they tend to do better,” says Erin Green of Boys Town. But be specific. Generic, overly generalized comments such as “Good job!” don’t really help. Complimenting a specific behavior (“Thanks for showing respect to our visiting guest”), on the other hand, reinforces that particular behavior. Challenge your whole team to give 15 compliments a day, or 25 or even 40. You might just be amazed at the difference it makes.
Is Your School's Culture
Toxic or Positive?
"School culture is the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the 'persona' of the school," says Dr. Kent D. Peterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Education World talked with Peterson about the differences between positive and negative school cultures and how administrators and teachers can create a positive culture in their schools. Included: Tips for creating a positive school culture.
"The culture of a school consists primarily of the underlying norm values and beliefs that teachers and administrators hold about teaching and learning," according to Dr. Kent D. Peterson. That culture is also composed of "traditions and ceremonies schools hold to build community and reinforce their values," says Peterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership.
Every school has underlying assumptions about what staff members will discuss at meetings, which teaching techniques work well, how amenable the staff is to change, and how critical staff development is, adds Peterson. That core set of beliefs underlies the school's overall culture.
In a school with a positive culture, Peterson says, "[T]here's an informal network of heroes and heroines and an informal grapevine that passes along information about what's going on in the school ... [A] set of values that supports professional development of teachers, a sense of responsibility for student learning, and a positive, caring atmosphere" exist.
On the other hand, in a toxic school environment, "teacher relations are often conflictual, the staff doesn't believe in the ability of the students to succeed, and a generally negative attitude" prevails, notes Peterson.
Staff and administrators in a positive school culture believe they have the ability to achieve their ambitions. Their counterparts operating in a negative school environment lack faith in the possibility of realizing their visions.
School culture has a profound effect on staff development. "It affects attitudes toward spending time to improve instruction, motivation to attend workshops, and the [activities] people choose to participate in," Peterson says.
Extensive Resources Not Need for Positivity to Bloom
In the article Positive or Negative? (Journal of Staff Development, Summer 2002), Peterson writes about the exemplary school culture at Ganado (Arizona) Primary School. Located in one of the poorest counties in the United States, the school has not always boasted a vibrant professional community. "Over time," Peterson wrote, "Sigmund Boloz, the principal, and his staff developed a strong, professional culture that supports staff and student learning."
In that article, Peterson described a school culture in which staff, students, principal, and community members are all seen as learners. All teachers have been trained in a reading intervention program called CLIP (Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project). Teachers are supported in their use of the program and are invited to regular "curriculum conversations" to discuss new ideas and share experiences.
At Ganado, "[T]he presence of a staff professional library symbolically communicates the importance of learning," Peterson continued. "The school has amassed 4,000 professional books and 400 videotapes on effective teaching and other professional issues." In addition, the school hosts an academy for parents each year to help enhance parenting abilities.
"Staff members feel responsible for improving their own skills and knowledge to help students learn," concluded Peterson. "They regularly recount stories of successfully using new ideas. The staff expects and encourages collaboration and sharing. In short, professional learning is valued in the culture."
According to Peterson, schools with a negative, or toxic, culture
- lack a clear sense of purpose
- have norms that reinforce inertia
- blame students for lack of progress
- discourage collaboration
- often have actively hostile relations among staff.
In fighting such a negative culture, Peterson tells Education World, "to begin with, the staff must assess the underlying norms and values of the culture and then as a group activity, work to change them to have a more positive, supportive culture."
Principals need to "read the school," Peterson suggests. They must talk to storytellers on the staff to discern what kind of history the school has. Staff and administrators need to examine what they have learned about the school culture, and then they must ask two questions:
- What aspects of the culture are positive and should be reinforced?
- What aspects of the culture are negative and harmful and should be changed?
In "Positive or Negative?" Peterson shared ways in which principals and staff leaders can nurture the school culture's positive aspects. They include the following:
- Celebrate successes in staff meetings and ceremonies.
- Tell stories of accomplishment and collaboration whenever there's an opportunity.
- Use clear, shared language created during professional development to foster a commitment to staff and student learning.
When administrators and staff collaborate in a strong push to foster an environment in which learning blooms, Peterson concluded, they will decrease such negatives as student misbehavior and faculty grousing and create an overall positive school culture with a flourishing staff and students.
Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership
A brief summary of this book, says authors Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson, shows how school leaders can use the power of school culture to create a vibrant, cooperative spirit and a school "persona."
Shaping School Culture Fieldbook
By Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson (Jossey-Bass), this book provides solid methods, questions to contemplate, and group activities for a school's staff to use in assessing and changing its culture.