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Changing School Culture, An Administrator’s Challenge

Alex S. Partos Upper School Principal Escola Americana Do Rio de Janeiro

Often, people form impressions of a school from the moment they enter the front door. Do they feel welcome? Are they greeted in a friendly manner? Do students and teachers approach them and ask if they need help? Is the environment inviting? These are just a few of the many first impressions. Those of us who have been in the area of International Education have an appreciation of the many characteristics and differences of the school cultures in which we have worked.

While many schools have cultures which are similar, they are in fact quite different. What defines these differences? What is the effect of school culture on the members of the school community? What is the effect of the school community on the school culture?

To answer these questions we must first define what composes a school’s culture. I like to think of the school’s culture as the soul of the school. It is a feeling that permeates the everyday activities of all of its members. It is the sum of shared values, beliefs, and attitudes which make the school special to its members. Every interaction within the school reflects the beliefs and values which compose the culture of that particular school.

Fortunately, most of the schools I have had the privilege of working in had positive and engaging school cultures. However, what if a school’s culture is less than that desired for a wholesome attitude and environment to exist. What if there is a culture of apathy, confrontation, suspicion, or mediocrity? How is it possible to change these types of cultures?

The challenge is to redefine the values and beliefs of the school community. This is a task which will require extensive communication between all stakeholders. The exercise may take the form of thinking about the characteristics of a “dream school” and a supportive and caring work environment. Once the lines of communication are open and there is a sense of trust, the work can begin.

The steps for change are to determine if there are desired attributes that may be missing. Discussion can then move towards defining those attitudes and attributes the community would like to see as part of their school culture and those they would like to change. Opinions of all stakeholders must be taken into consideration and then a commitment by all involved must take place.

Is this an easy process? Most often it is not. A school’s culture often takes a long time to develop. Inversely, it can often rapidly change with a change in leadership and personnel.

According to the book “How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom” the following are “must haves” when considering a school’s culture:

  1. A mission and vision developed or revisited by a representative group of current stakeholders.

  2. A specified set of purposeful language, actions, and routines designed to make students and other stakeholders feel welcome, comfortable, important, and understood.

  3. A specified set of purposeful language, actions, and routines designed to help students and other stakeholders identify the expectations of each pillar.

  4. A focus on quality, including quality instruction, quality interactions, and a cycle of continuous, quality improvement.

  5. Continual attention to creating a passionate and competent staff capable of implementing culture-building systems.

As is evident, all of these require extensive discussion between all stakeholders and a long term commitment to building and maintaining a culture that schools can be proud of.

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