Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Secrets to Creating a Positive School Culture

If someone would have asked me this question a few years ago I honestly would not have had a good answer.  I always thought a positive school culture was one where strict rules were created and consistently enforced to keep students focused on learning.  In my mind, the more I could control the environment that my students were a part of the better the results. There was not much flexibility in terms of the structure of the day and what students were “allowed” to do.  The end result was either compliance or outright defiance. Those who were compliant were celebrated while those who were defiant were disciplined accordingly.  

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I can look back on this early time in my administrative career and really see how na├»ve I was.  All I have to do now is look at the status of our school culture today, which has led me to this mini reflection. Last week I had the opportunity to meet with some students who convened a meeting with me.  The purpose of this meeting was for them to share concerns they had with some of the inner functions of the school.  The main part of the meeting focused on how we run our fire and security drills, but the conversation later moved onto questioning our use of Study Island and inconsistencies in taking attendance.  

Herein lies one significant cultural shift; a meeting called by students as they have been empowered to become catalysts for change. Their ideas are valued, but the fact that they have more power than they think point has not been consistently reinforced. It was at this point that I looked each of them in the eyes and told them that they don’t work for us; we (teachers, administrators) work for them. Their jaws dropped when I said this.  Giving up control and empowering my students to take ownership of their educational experience has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.  Is this really a secret though?  Well, it obviously was to me, and had I known I would have done this much earlier in my administrative career.

Now back to the student meeting.  After addressing their concerns a student brought up how much she, and others, appreciated the fact that we allow them to bring their technology to school.  This meant the world to me, as many know that I have worked hard with my staff to initiate a meaningful Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program.  I used this point in the meeting as an opportunity to challenge the students to be more proactive in their device use for learning. Each student was left with the task of working with his or her teachers and peers to strengthen our BYOD initiative so that it continues to focus on learning. The difference now was shifting the responsibility to improve the program from the professional staff to the students.  

I hear a great deal of conversation in the education world about transforming school culture.  Heck, I have even added to that dialogue on numerous occasions.  It wasn’t until now that I realized the most significant piece to the change and transformation process is our students.  This most important stakeholder group is often left out of this conversation.  So what are the secrets to transforming school culture? Make it a student-centered process, give up control, respect their ideas then implement them, and get out of the way. For it is they, our students, who ultimately transform school culture.  We are just playing in their sandbox. 


  1. Awesome. It takes the will and insight to begin this journey. Whether one is an administrator or not, the same perspective holds true for teachers, coaches, parents,... Sure, there are some non-negotiables, but that doesn't mean that there can't be an open channel of communication about them. Too many just see a hand up in their face rather than a door open that legitimately welcomes them in. There's no point opening one's door when one has a sign on the desk or wall that says, "My way or the highway." ;-)

    Thanks for sharing. Your breakthroughs open up windows for others.

  2. Sudbury Valley School has been doing this and more for 45 years. In fact, students of all ages (through a democratic process with staff) hire staff and participate equally in ALL administrative and management decisions. I applaud Eric Sheninger for introducing what he is able to in a public high school.

  3. And indeed, we must begin this process early. As a middle school principal, I'm realizing how important it is for student voice to be raised and celebrated. Well-stated. Carry on, Sheninger!

  4. I am only new to this blogging caper and am loving the information I am discovering from reading a variety of posts from different educators throughout the world. I don't know why I didn't start earlier!

    I Currently work at a medium sized international school in South East Asia and have been here for the past 6 years. When I first started the morale and culture amongst the entire community was extremely low and very negative...often labelled as cancerous. This was mainly due to the former principal retiring after 18 years in the gig and then immediately going onto the Board of Directors As a result we had two principals in two years and finally a shake up came.

    A new principal was employed who picked his own team when it came to management...luckily, I was one of them. Within 12 months we turned the school around, mainly due to the factors you have listed as well. Our motto as a team were the 3 F's....firm, fair and friendly!

    We listened to our students and also, at times, to our parents and other members of the community. The students weren't happy with their uniforms (which I couldn't blame them) so after some significant negotiations, we compromised and they were happy. We took the same approach with the dinner menu, bringing in a sandwich (subway) day every Tuesday, and a group of students and staff formed a food task committee. the students began to get more of a voice and they respected this.

    As a management team we were in the school yard during break and lunchtimes and we got to know our students on a personal level. We discovered they wanted more extra curricular activities and as a result our sport and performing arts programs are thriving. We have now become the biggest international school within our area and we now have long waiting lists.

    Why? Because we gave the students the opportunity to help build the culture they wanted....within reason!

    After reading your blog I clicked on your BYOD Program post and I am really impressed the method in which you chose to integrate technology into your school. I am about to do the same at our school and I would like to get in contact with you to find out more.

    Thanks for the read!

  5. Thanks for all the great comments and taking the time to read this post. We have always placed an emphasis on empowering our students to be catalysts for change, but we were always the ones initiating the process. I am excited about the shift in allowing students to now be more in the driver's seat.

    Craig - Feel free to contact me anytime!