Leaders’ role in school culture

By Herman M. Lagon

In the heart of every thriving school lies a strong and positive culture, often described as the school’s invisible yet pervasive heartbeat. This culture, which significantly impacts every aspect of school life, from the staff’s morale to student achievement, is mainly shaped by the leadership within the institution. The importance of school leaders in shaping and sustaining this culture is immense. Their influence is crucial in cultivating an environment where collaboration, mutual respect, and a shared vision for success can thrive.

School leaders, including principals, supervisors, teachers, formators, staff, and even parents in the case of basic education and student leaders in the case of universities, are instrumental in eliminating toxic cultures and building positive ones. Their leadership styles, decisions, and behaviors set the tone for the entire school. In schools where the culture is positive, staff members often describe a sense of purpose and community that goes beyond the tangible elements of the school. This sense of belonging and shared mission is what makes the culture so powerful and, often, so elusive to define.

One example of leadership influencing school culture can be seen in a Jesuit school where I served for 21 years. The study titled “School Culture Typology and Leadership” highlighted how the dominant culture at this school was collaborative, despite having elements of contrived collegiality and comfortable collaboration. This collaborative culture was evident in decision-making processes, openness, communication, and organizational history. However, areas such as trust among teachers and parent relations, although still commendable, required improvement, demonstrating that school culture is not static but rather an ongoing project requiring constant attention and adaptation.

The culture of a school includes the everyday norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that define its atmosphere. It is apparent in the sights, sounds, and overall feel when you walk in. This culture deeply affects students, teachers, and staff’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. School leaders are essential in establishing and sustaining this dynamic culture. Their active involvement fosters a positive environment where students and teachers can excel. With solid leadership, efforts to improve the school can stay calm, and the atmosphere can turn stagnant or even toxic.

A positive school culture does not just happen; it is crafted through shared values and goals, open communication, and mutual support among teachers. It involves a commitment to professional growth for everyone. In such a culture, teachers feel appreciated and supported, students are engaged and motivated, and parents think they are essential to the community. This environment results from deliberate and ongoing efforts by school leaders who understand the importance of inclusivity and support.

Conversely, a school culture can become toxic when leadership is weak or absent. In these environments, staff members often feel isolated, the focus shifts from student needs to adult grievances, and negative attitudes prevail. Rebuilding a positive culture in such schools requires significant time, effort, and, most importantly, determined leadership willing to tackle the root causes of dysfunction and drive meaningful change.

One key task for school leaders is to understand the existing culture. This means recognizing the deeper meanings and historical context behind current behaviors and attitudes. Leaders must then highlight and reinforce core values that support students’ best interests and create a professional environment centered on student success. This process involves addressing the negative aspects of the culture and celebrating the positive ones.

Successful schools often use rituals and traditions to strengthen their culture. Celebrations of student achievements, recognition of innovative teaching, and meaningful parental involvement all contribute to a positive environment. Take Ganado Primary School in Arizona, for example. Regular meetings on instructional techniques and celebrations of student accomplishments have transformed its culture, supporting both learning and professional development.

Influential school leaders do not just talk about core values—they live them. They recognize and honor those who contribute to the school’s mission, observe rituals that uphold the school’s ethos, and celebrate the accomplishments of the entire community. Doing this creates a space where students and staff feel valued and motivated to excel.

Beyond fostering a positive culture, school leaders must also manage change effectively. This requires leaders to be visionary, proactive, and attuned to the school community’s needs. Those who can manage the complexities of change while staying focused on core values and objectives are more likely to foster a lasting, positive culture.

There are many facets to school leaders’ role in forming and preserving the school’s culture. They must act as historians, understanding the school’s history; as anthropologists, identifying the values and beliefs that shape behaviors; as psychologists, providing emotional support and understanding their mental well-being; as confidants, building strong, trusting relationships that foster a positive and inclusive environment; and as visionaries, guiding the school toward a more inspiring, systematic, and shared future. To make a healthy school culture, they need to model desired behaviors, articulate a clear and compelling vision, and create an atmosphere of trust and collaboration.

It is essential to have strong leadership to construct and maintain a culture of collaboration inside the school. Leaders are pivotal in shaping the environment, establishing standards, and demonstrating behaviors that influence the entire community. By fostering a positive culture, they create an atmosphere where students and faculty can thrive, enhancing academic performance and a more cohesive and supportive school climate. Effective leadership can transform school culture, promoting collaboration and support, thereby enriching the educational experience for all members of the community. This is clearly shown by my past school experience, demonstrating that this transformation, given the right intentions and actions, is indeed possible.

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Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.

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