10 steps to improve school culture

February 2, 2018 ACSA Writer

By Dr. Lou E Whitaker for MeTEOR Education, an ACSA Partner for Purpose 

The popular television host David Letterman was well known for his Top 10 Lists. When I began to think about what qualities are needed to create a positive school culture, they seemed to fall into this easy-to-comprehend format.

10. Be on a mission: mission and beliefs

All school communications clearly state what the institution is about …. their mission, vision, purpose, beliefs, and objectives. The handbooks, websites, letterheads, banners, etc. all reflect what the school is and strives to become. The written policies and procedures are reviewed annually to keep the school current with the times.

Although this is an important, vital aspect, culture is so much more. It also includes perceptions, attitudes, relationships, and the unwritten rules that influence every aspect of the school. It is formed by both conscious and unconscious perspectives, values and practices. Rex Miller stated it best when he said, “Culture is the invisible attitudes, values, habits, and behaviors that run the place when you’re not there” (Miller, pg. 147).

9. Climate comforts the environment

Stakeholders, of course, want a place that is well maintained, clean, well designed for traffic flow, with the proper lighting, air temperature, etc. But as Marian Diamond, the neuroscientist from the University of California, clearly pointed out in her studies, an enriched environment effects dendrite formation and the thickening of the cortex, thereby enhancing brain growth and development. “Enriching the environment enriches the brain” (Diamond, 1999).

What constitutes an enriched environment? (Whitaker, 2017)

  • Where students feel safe both physically and emotionally.
  • Where there is positive emotional support.
  • Classrooms stimulate all the senses (not all at once though).
  • They have an atmosphere free of undue pressure and stress.
  • Where challenges are neither too easy nor too difficult (Goldilocks Effect, Hattie, 2009).
  • Allows for social interaction for a significant percentage of activities.
  • Promotes the development of a broad range of skills and interests that are mental, physical, aesthetic, social, and emotional.
  • Has an atmosphere that promotes exploration and the fun of learning.
  • Allows students to be an active participant rather than a passive observer.
  • “Where relationships and interactions are characterized by openness, trust, respect and appreciation” (Partnership, 2013).

8. Stay in the loop

Well designed forms of communication are critical when creating a positive school culture. This includes everything from the school’s website, emails, phone calls, newsletters, media blurbs, etc. Keeping parents, stakeholders and the community abreast of all of the positive things happening at school builds a savings bank of perceptions so if something negative should happen to occur, such as a teacher being accused of misconduct, the reputation of the school isn’t destroyed. Jill Adams, an Educational Consultant, summed it all up when she wrote, “When educators do not communicate, the public fills in the blanks and sometimes the blanks are not positive or even accurate. Control the message” (Adams, 2014).

7. Lead the way

There should be numerous opportunities for teachers to take leadership roles within the school and district, such as serving as a department chairperson, professional development coordinator, instructional or curriculum expert. Students also take leadership roles such as being a school ambassador, student council officers, or student mentors.

Successful schools make sure that special recognition is given to both staff and students members for their accomplishments. Achievements are publicly celebrated and encouragement is derived from all stakeholders.

6. Collaborate

Behavioral expectations are clearly defined and supported by the administration and staff. Support is in place and provide services for students. Robert Sylwester in his book, A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom, states that there should be a focus shift from classroom management to student-teacher collaboration that improves the classroom dynamics and helps develop social skills (Sylwester, 2000).

5. Love your job

Institutions that have a major goal of instilling a love for learning better prepare students for the future. They do this through teacher modeling, as well as motivating their students through using the “….4 Cs …collaboration, communication, creative thinking and critical thinking (Miller, 2017. Pg. 176).”

Students have a clear understanding of the lessons and how they are meaningful to them personally. Assignments are project-based with real-world significance. Successful schools are student-centered and set high expectations for their students as well as their staffs.

4. Help students create their own Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck a Stanford University psychologist states that teaching growth mindset increases motivation and productivity. When students understand that their intelligence isn’t fixed, that they have the ability to actually change their intellectual ability, she found that motivation increases and they actually boost their achievement. Dweck goes on to say that growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Students need to try new strategies and seek support from others when they need help (Dweck, 2015). Students understand that mistakes and errors are all part of the learning process and are viewed not as failure, but as a step in helping them achieve success.

3. Become a brain junkie

Teachers, as well as students, need a solid understanding of the human brain and how it works. When students have knowledge of the functions of their brain and how they learn, they feel they have more control of the learning process.

“Teachers need to be prepared with foundational knowledge to understand, evaluate, and apply the neuroscience of learning. With this knowledge, they will be able to recognize future implications from this rapidly expanding field of research to increase the effectiveness of their teaching and build and sustain students’ joy of learning” (Willis, 2017).

2. “If you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat their students.”

When I visit schools the first thing I ask about is their professional development programs. Schools that have a strong line item in their budget for professional development, are sending a message they care about the continuing improvement of their staff. It says that they believe that life-long learning and continually striving to improve oneself, is essential for success. It’s a model for their students to witness and emulate.

Besides attending conferences, workshops, and seminars, schools provide in-house PD through creating professional learning communities, peer-to-peer mentoring, observations and so forth. But more importantly, the school creates time during the workday for teachers to meet with one another, share what they’re doing in class and actually allows teachers time to assess their effects related to student learning. According to John Hattie’s research, “Teachers, working together, as evaluators of their impact,” show a very high correlation (d = .93) between their teaching and student achievement (Hattie, 2013). Teachers need time to assess their impact.

1. Above all … CARE

Students have respect and compassion for fellow classmates… where learning about social-emotional intelligence and healthy relationships are at the forefront. Successful schools embrace racial, ethnic, linguist, and cultural diversity and expect inclusion to be a “given.”

In John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement, he found that one of the greatest indicators of a high-impact school is one that also fosters positive relationships between teachers and students. Having teachers who care, that take time to listen, possess empathy, and demonstrate a positive regard for others, have a greater impact on student achievement than those who do not (Hattie, Pg. 118).

Dr. Rita Pierson in her TED Talk, Every Kid Needs a Champion (Pierson, 2013), clearly states that students do not learn from people they don’t like! When you ask anyone to think back about their childhood and recall their favorite teacher, they will say their teachers made their feel important, that they felt their teachers honestly cared about them and their successes.

For comments or questions, please contact me Lou Whitaker, Ed. D., at DrLou@meteoreducation.com

For the latest and most relevant content in education administration, join ACSA today and access conferences, credentialing programs, academies, award-winning publications like EdCal and Leadership magazine, and a wide variety of member benefits, including a free one-on-one mentorship program, leadership and networking opportunities, and discounts on products and services. Learn more about ACSA member benefits and resources.

We hope that you join ACSA on February 12-16, 2018 for the ECC Symposium, presented by ACSA’s Student Services and Special Education Council. The Symposium is a world-class learning event featuring workshops, informative keynotes and opportunities for skill development and networking. It is designed for educational leaders of all levels and focuses on the latest in the field of student services and special education.

ACSA's Every Child Counts


  • Adams, J. (2014, May 9). Fostering a positive school culture . (Jill Adams, Adams Educational Consulting) Retrieved October 9, 2017, from Blog: www.effectiveteachingpd.com/blog/2014/5/9/fostering-a-positive-school-culture8-best-practices-html
  • Bergland, C. (2012, March 7). Enriched environments build better brains. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from Psychology Today: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201203/enriched-environments-build-better-brains
  • Diamond, M. &. (1999). Magic tress of the mind. New York, New York, USA: Penguin.
  • Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck revisits the ‘growth mindset’. (E. Week, Producer, & Education Week) Retrieved October 8, 2016, from Education Week: www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.
  • Hattie, J. (2013, November 22). Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful? John Hattie at TEDxNorrkoping. (TEDxNorrkoping, Producer) Retrieved October 9, 2017, from You Tube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzwJXUieDOU&t=547s
  • Miller, G. (2010). Visible learning by John Hattie (2009), Summary by Gerry Miller. Tyneside EZA Consultant, Gerry Miller. Tyneside EZA Consultant, Gerry Miller.
  • Miller, R. L. (207). Humanizing the education machine. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Partnership, T. G. (2013, November 25). School culture. (T. G. Partnership, Producer) Retrieved October 10, 2017, from The Glossary of Education Reform: www.edglossary.org/school-culture/
  • Pierson, R. (2013, May). Every kids needs a champion. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from TED Ideas worth spreading: www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion/transcript?language=en
  • Sylwester, R. (2000). A biological brain in a cultural classroom: Applying biological research to classroom management. Thousand Oaks, CA: Crowin Press.
  • Whitaker, L. (2017, August 3). Improving student achievement through neuroscience. Handouts for Holy Family Catholic School Staff. Orlando, Florida, USA: Open Minds Enterprises.
  • Willis, J. (2017). Why teacher education should include neuroscience. (Teachthought, Producer) Retrieved October 8, 2017, from teachthought: www.teachthought.com/pedagogy/why-teacher-education-should-include-neuroscience
Previous Article
Apps to watch as kids return to school
Apps to watch as kids return to school

Depending on their content and design, some apps can cause disruptions at school. Others can be downright d...

Next Article
Resources for teaching Black history month
Resources for teaching Black history month

Teaching Black History Month, California’s Black history, and resources for talking about race in the class...