The term school culture generally refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety of students, the orderliness of classrooms and public spaces, or the degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity.
Like the larger social culture, a school culture results from both conscious and unconscious perspectives, values, interactions, and practices, and it is heavily shaped by a school’s particular institutional history. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and other staff members all contribute to their school’s culture, as do other influences such as the community in which the school is located, the policies that govern how it operates, or the principles upon which the school was founded.
Generally speaking, school cultures can be divided into two basic forms: positive cultures and negative cultures. Numerous researchers, educators, and writers have attempted to define the major features of positive and negative school cultures, and an abundance of studies, articles, and books are available on the topic. In addition, many educational organizations, such as the National School Climate Center, have produced detailed descriptions of positive school cultures and developed strategies for improving them (given the complexity of the topic, however, it is not possible to describe all the distinctions here).
Broadly defined, positive school cultures are conducive to professional satisfaction, morale, and effectiveness, as well as to student learning, fulfillment, and well-being. The following list is a representative selection of a few characteristics commonly associated with positive school cultures:
- The individual successes of teachers and students are recognized and celebrated.
- Relationships and interactions are characterized by openness, trust, respect, and appreciation.
- Staff relationships are collegial, collaborative, and productive, and all staff members are held to high professional standards.
- Students and staff members feel emotionally and physical safe, and the school’s policies and facilities promote student safety.
- School leaders, teachers, and staff members model positive, healthy behaviors for students.
- Mistakes not punished as failures, but they are seen as opportunities to learn and grow for both students and educators.
- Students are consistently held to high academic expectations, and a majority of students meet or exceed those expectations.
- Important leadership decisions are made collaboratively with input from staff members, students, and parents.
- Criticism, when voiced, is constructive and well-intentioned, not antagonistic or self-serving.
- Educational resources and learning opportunities are equitably distributed, and all students, including minorities and students with disabilities.
- All students have access to the academic support and services they may need to succeed.
School culture has become a central concept in many efforts to change how schools operate and improve educational results. While a school culture is heavily influenced by its institutional history, culture also shapes social patterns, habits, and dynamics that influence future behaviors, which could become an obstacle to reform and improvement. For example, if a faculty culture is generally dysfunctional—i.e., if interpersonal tensions and distrust are common, problems are rarely addressed or resolved, or staff members tend to argue more than they collaborate or engage in productive professional discussions—it is likely that these cultural factors will significantly complicate or hinder any attempt to change how the school operates. This simple example illustrates why school culture has become the object of so many research studies and reform efforts—without a school culture that is conducive to improvement, reform becomes exponentially more difficult.
The following describe a few representative examples of common ways that schools may attempt to improve their culture:
- Establishing professional learning communities that encourages teachers to communicate, share expertise, and work together more collegially and productively.
- Providing presentations, seminars, and learning experiences designed to educate staff and students about bullying and reduce instances of bullying.
- Creating events and educational experiences that honor and celebrate the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the student body, such as hosting cultural events and festivals, exhibiting culturally relevant materials throughout the school, inviting local cultural leaders to present to students, or making explicit connections between the diverse cultural backgrounds of students and what is being taught in history, social studies, and literature courses. For related discussions, see multicultural education and voice.
- Establishing an advisory program that pairs groups of students with adult advisor to strengthen adult-student relationships and ensure that students are well known and supported by at least one adult in the school.
- Surveying students, parents, and teachers about their experiences in the school, and hosting community forums that invite participants to share their opinions about and recommendations for the school and its programs.
- Creating a leadership team comprising a representative cross-section of school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members that oversees and leads a school-improvement initiative.
Since most members of a school community will benefit from a more positive culture, and cultural factors tend to contribute significantly to emotional states such as happiness and unhappiness or fulfillment and dissatisfaction, the concept of a more positive school culture is rarely, in itself, controversial. For this reason, debates tend to arise (if they arise at all) in response to specific reform proposals, rather than to the general goal of improving a school culture. Yet given that organizational dysfunction is, by nature, an entrenched pattern of often unconscious behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that tend to obstruct organizational change and improvement—and because human beings can become deeply attached to emotions and behaviors that may make them less happy, fulfilled, productive, or successful—attempts to reform school cultures may be more likely encounter resistance, criticism, or controversy in schools that are most in need of cultural reforms. In recent years, problems related to school culture are being cited as reasons for why schools should be closed or why a significant percentage of the teaching faculty should be fired. In these cases, “school culture” may become a flashpoint in larger debates about specific school-reform policies and strategies.
Because all school cultures are unique, it is important to investigate and develop an understanding of the underlying causes of any debates, including the preexisting cultural conditions that may be contributing to the debates. To adapt Tolstoy’s famous opening line in Anna Karenina: All positive school cultures share common features, but each negative school culture is negative in its own way.