From Awareness to Action: 5 Steps to Change your School Culture

Perspective from a Teach for America alum and edtech company founder.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jen Medbery

credit-kickboardHow would your teachers, students, and parents describe your school’s environment? Most of us are familiar with the benefits of a positive school climate and culture: stronger engagement, fewer suspensions, and higher attendance and graduation rates. But changing the culture takes effort, time, and teamwork. Here are five steps, along with some examples, to achieve meaningful climate and culture change in your schools:

Step 1: Take the pulse of your current climate and culture.

One quick way to assess your school’s culture is to study your discipline reports. Research shows that suspensions have negative consequences, including higher dropout rates and lower student engagement. Another way to gain insight is to simply ask. When she was an assistant principal in the Dallas Independent School District, Kasie Longoria created an in-house questionnaire that was a more targeted version of the district’s twice-a-year culture survey. “We sent it out monthly to get a pulse on where we were and where we were headed,” says Longoria, now assistant principal at Wood Elementary School in Arlington, Texas. “We were very intentional about asking teachers and staff what we could do or change right away that would help.”

When students feel safe, connected, and motivated, schools succeed.

Shanna Rae, assistant principal at Windsor Park Elementary School, part of Charlotte Mecklenburg School District in Charlotte, N.C., suggests holding a staff meeting to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. One of the keys, however, is to make sure everyone knows they can be honest and that it won’t be held against them. “Set the tone for people to feel comfortable sharing what makes them feel uncomfortable, and then brainstorm how you can resolve these issues,” she says.

Rae held ‘How are we doing?’ sessions once a month when she was assistant principal at the district’s Billingsville Elementary School. Early on in these sessions, the kindergarten teachers complained that recess was too crowded and the older children were trampling over the younger ones. “We couldn’t switch the schedule, so we decided to have the children rotate if they are all outside together,” says Rae. “The kindergarteners go to the swings while the fifth graders play kickball and the fourth graders go to the playground. Easy solution and everyone was pleased.”

Step 2: Go the extra mile to make sure your community understands the goals of your learning environment.

Research has shown that everyone benefits when parents, families, and your community are all informed about your school’s practices and policies. When parents are informed about what’s happening in your classrooms, they can help their children set goals and develop the skills needed to make the environment more positive for everyone.

Communication is the critical element in this plan, but remember that like educators, parents are busy people, too. They are inundated with emails and other demands for their attention, so be sure to provide a variety of communications options that are quick, convenient, and easy to digest. On the macro level, some districts hold town hall-style meetings – one during the day, another on evenings or even weekends to accommodate all parents’ schedules. Paper or electronic newsletters and blogs are other easy ways to let the community know about your happenings—just make sure to offer people a variety of ways to receive notices – via email, automated message or text, or through social media services. On the micro level, share weekly progress reports with parents to give them a snapshot of their child’s behavior, along with expectations based on the school’s policies. This is a great way to boost parent participation in their child’s success at school.

Step 3: Culture change starts at the top. Are your leaders on board?

When she was trying to figure out how to decrease her school’s high number of behavioral incidents, Longoria visited local schools for ideas. One school was using my web-based platform to track and improve school culture through positive behavior reinforcement, and the data the leaders shared was so impressive that Longoria presented it to her principal. Once her principal was on board, they planned to roll out the program in the fall. When the administration believes in and invests in a plan, it’s easier to convince others to follow suit.

Rae says that she and her principal talk about morale all the time, coming up with new ideas to improve the environment. But more important, they continually ask their teachers for feedback. Because her principal is so open to collaboration and models that type of behavior, the teachers in her school are more likely to explore different methods.

Step 4: Align your professional development with your teaching and learning goals.

When Longoria’s current school began using the platform, teachers had to learn new strategies for offering precise praise to students when they exhibit positive behavior choices. For example, instead of just saying, “Good job, Daniel,” teachers are learning how to offer specific praise, such as, “Daniel is writing his name. He is ready to learn today!” Teachers received coaching on how to look for the positives and be more intentional with their praise, and, at the beginning, Longoria and her principal did ten or more walkthroughs a day to observe and deliver additional feedback. “We gave examples on how to offer praise cues and we’d model lessons if they were struggling,” she says

The school learned that it had to change its systems to change both student and teacher behavior. They opened a store where students who earned behavior-based rewards could buy pencils, erasers, and coupons for free dress day or lunch in the courtyard. “The students have to understand why they are earning rewards and can articulate what behavior they did or it’s a waste of time and money. That ties in to the coaching we did on the specific praise,” says Longoria.

Step 5: Keep checking the pulse as you move forward.

Be sure to have systems in place to gather feedback and determine if your new systems are making a difference. Many schools do surveys or questionnaires, such as asking three quick questions after a staff meeting.

“Meet one-on-one with the teachers in your building who are more likely to be less positive, to make sure they stay on your radar,” says Rae. “If you hear about teachers grumbling in the lounge, invite them to come in and talk with you. Don’t ignore that chatter! The key players can make or break your efforts.”

Longoria’s school paid close attention to the students and staff members with the highest amount of positive behaviors so they could recognize them and keep everyone motivated. On Fridays she’d give shout outs on the morning announcements to the weekly leaders; teachers received recognition to reinforce the usage. The school also came up with a Scholar of the Six Weeks award, based on character and behavior. Winning students — based on the data — took home a yard sign.

Research shows that positive school cultures are linked to increased high school graduation rates, turnarounds in low-performing schools, reduced school violence, and increased communication among students, families and faculty, among many other benefits. By helping students stay engaged and act positively — while giving school leaders and teachers multiple levels of support — your school culture can move the achievement needle. When students feel safe, connected, and motivated, schools succeed.

Jennifer Medbery is an author, speaker, and nationally recognized thought leader on the impact a positive school climate and culture can have on increasing student success. A graduate of Columbia University, Jennifer spent several years as a high school teacher through Teach for America before founding Kickboard, an award-winning education technology company based in New Orleans.

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