Why does culture matter so much?
School culture is difficult to quantify, it goes far beyond the school's results and standards. School culture is the focus of the school, its core beliefs, its attention to wellbeing for all, the way it operates as a team. It includes both written and unwritten rules.
Furthermore, school culture is evidenced in the feeling you get when you walk down the corridor, sit in a school assembly, as well as the vibe you get when you’re in the staffroom. Ultimately, when a school culture is positive, strong and unmistakably open in its thinking and approaches, both staff and pupils are more likely to flourish.
Practical steps that you can take to create an open and honest culture
Relationships are key and are at the heart of everything we do as educators. When all staff members are treated with respect and they feel valued, they are more likely to deliver their best.
When staff members feel like they can make mistakes in an open, honest and caring environment, they are more likely to be motivated to improve.
Modeling openness and honesty starts with the headteacher/principal and senior leadership team. Open communication to all staff and pupils starts with saying simple phrases such as ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’. Every friendly exchange helps embed an overall sense of belonging because staff members' self-worth increases as they are acknowledged and validated.
Opportunities for all staff to go on training courses related to their subject specialism, specific areas of interest or learning related to the school vision should be a priority.
Staff should then disseminate information at appropriate staff meetings and help create any relevant motivational initiatives to be implemented. This kind of equal approach helps all staff to learn from each other and thus helps to embed an honest and open culture.
Treating all staff fairly and not esteeming anyone more important than another is key. Communicating school decisions and events with all staff members is critical and essential in creating an open and honest culture. At specific times during the academic year, perhaps as part of performance management reviews, questions such as, ‘How do you think the school could improve?’ can prove invaluable. All staff members should be included from playground staff to kitchen staff to cleaners. Everyone’s viewpoints should be taken into equal consideration.
Collaborative input from all staff on key school decisions allows a wider range of views which in turn helps breed an open culture where feelings of uncertainty and exclusiveness can be decreased. This ethos of openness, honesty, and transparency shared as a school staff serves as a foundation to then filter into both pupil and parent relations.
A clear and shared vision
As many staff and pupils should be involved in its creation from the very beginning, thus ensuring that it is not simply a ‘top-down’ approach where staff and pupils can end up feeling dictated to rather than empowered to help influence change for the better. Creating, as well as reviewing visions openly and honestly, invites staff and pupils to have their input and encourages further open communication.
Making the school’s vision and mission plans publicly accessible and visible for the entire school, staff, pupils as well as parents is vital. Too often, schools can be guilty of making such detailed plans and keeping them clear only to the leadership team. For the vision to be shared and understood by all, it must be clear and consistently reinforced.
Daily gatherings such as assemblies and weekly staff meetings are opportunities to instill the core principles of the vision. Any achievements made towards the specific steps of the shared vision should be celebrated as often as possible. This helps further embed the feeling of working together towards a common goal.
When staff is clear about where the school is heading as a team, they are better able to use their strengths to know how best they can assist the wider team on their way to achieve the shared goals and vision. The clearer and more optimistically staff feel towards the vision of the school, the more likely they are to feel open to being part of it, as well as talking fluidly and openly with their pupils.
Celebrate both pupils and staff
An open and honest culture is directly related to how staff and pupils feel they are appreciated and valued. Celebrating both small and big daily and weekly successes among staff and pupils in a consistent and caring way, allows people to feel cared for and respected.
Additionally, as staff and pupils celebrate each other’s successes in a warm, kind and non-competitive environment, school culture and togetherness become more interconnected as people learn more about each other in a positive and safe environment. Undoubtedly, as staff and pupils feel valued, appreciated and recognized for their efforts, they are more likely to feel safe and secure enough to take risks in their learning and feel safe to express their own viewpoints which is crucial for both their own learning journey as well as staff and pupils openly contributing to school life beyond their own sphere.
Review, Review, and review
A school’s culture, just like its vision must be adapted and reviewed frequently. A school leadership team must set aside time every term to analyze their school culture. This has to go beyond the office doors and must invite constructive criticism from multiple viewpoints and different roles.
If available, invite collaborative networks or seek outside experts to help provide a non-bias viewpoint to help to improve school culture. Be on guard for specific factors that may creep in and put steps in motion to make decisive action to reduce any problems.
More importantly than anything, treating and valuing all staff fairly and being open to potential viewpoints is key. Whilst you may not choose to make any changes, as a result, use the time to ensure that staff know that despite the outcome, their insight is invaluable to the journey of the school. Show understanding when things are difficult and if necessary, put action plans in place to support.
An open, honest culture = more likely to have happy teachers = more likely to have happy pupils
We all know that staff rooms and photocopy culture can easily fall into the trap of being full of negative and hopeless talk. It’s so easy to talk about the difficulty of workload balance, problems with a pupil’s behavior, a parent complaint etc, and so if not consciously watched and if culture is not prioritized, a toxic undercurrent tone can quickly seep into several corners of a school.
In contrast, when the school culture is open and honest, where all staff members are encouraged to discuss their feelings, where they are clear and on board with the vision, and where they feel appreciated, they are more likely to feel happy and contented at work. They can then be in the best position to teach and motivate pupils to learn how to effectively communicate and how to maximize their learning opportunities.