School Culture – What Does It Really Mean?
Updated: Aug 27
There are many industry specific words bandied about in public education that all too often, educators possess only a vague definition. One such education word is ‘culture.’
Using a lexicon, a precise definition of the word ‘culture’ is readily obtained.
‘culture’ - the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarding collectivity.
According to that dictionary definition, a school’s culture can be described as a group of humans working together to achieve or complete some task. However, based on this definition, I am unable to ascertain if another person/colleague truly has a similar collective school goal as me. In a word, does each faculty member have the same individual culture in their classrooms – and the sum of these individual parts form a cumulative view of school culture?
I believe a more pragmatic definition of culture is required. More precisely, a viable definition of the term in which one’s educational beliefs are easily determined in relation to a specific activity or belief. Thus, if all campus stakeholders react similarly, a school culture is more accurately identified.
A Viable Definition of Culture
A practical meaning is sought that identifies one’s idea of culture as either the same or different from another’s. When I was in college 35 years ago, my Texas government professor defined culture in a manner which I believe is helpful. She felt that culture was easily characterized by one’s automatic reaction to external stimuli. Her pragmatic definition of culture is as follows:
A person’s culture towards a task or a situation is determined by how they act or react without thinking. On the contrary, if a person needs to think about the task or situation prior to acting, then, it is not their culture.
For example: A teacher believes ‘hard work’ defines the school’s culture.
When the faculty is working on a collective task, they are consistently reminded to ‘put their back into it’ and ‘let’s get after it’ to complete the activity. In this particular case, the school’s culture is clearly not ‘hard work.'
For example: A 5th grade classroom’s culture is ‘on-task behavior and student engagement.’
After the direct teach portion of the lesson, students are provided independent work. Student’s immediate, collective reaction is to begin the assignment without delay. Hence, the stated classroom culture of on-task behavior and student engagement is valid. Furthermore, if the vast majority of elementary school classrooms react similarly, then it is accurate to characterize ‘on-task behavior and student engagement’ as an element of the school’s culture.
Why is School Culture so Important?
At this point, the answer to the above question is more than obvious. A typical elementary school consists of many moving parts. However, when a common, shared school culture translates to heightened academic outcomes with positive social interactions, then the faculty will respond favorably and immediately to any presented situation, idea or curricular program that academically and socially benefits their students.
For instance, if an elementary school's academic mantra is "Show-up, Work Hard and Read!". Then, at any given time in the school day when the principal asks a class of third grade students, "What is the most important skill a student learns while in elementary school?" And, students respond in kind in an excited collective voice, "Reading!" Then, the school's mantra has been thoroughly communicated to both teachers and students.
Most importantly, how is positive school culture established?
The principal must establish common school culture beliefs that are value added by the vast majority of campus stakeholders. Once those beliefs are securely founded and favorably viewed, the staff must practice those beliefs until they occur automatically, without fanfare. The principal’s primary intention is to create a human organization of symbiotic moving parts functioning with a common purpose.
The only questions with regard to school culture that are left unanswered for a lead campus administrator are the following:
First, "What does the principal want to accomplish socially and academically at their campus?"
Second, "How does the principal intend to develop the school culture dynamics to make their vision a shared reality?"
Lastly, "What metric will the principal use at the end of each school year to determine their level of collective success --- or lack there of?"