School Culture Creation

How Do You Create School Culture?
Aka: How Do You Nail Jello To A Tree?

Put down your hammer and leave the jello alone! We're making this harder, and messier than it has to be. The answer is right under everyone's nose, but it's being overlooked.

Even the Harvard Professor missed it! I did a Google search for "How to create school culture," and read the top five articles. The main bullet points from each are outlined here. No one touched on the common thread that can run through all the bullet points from everyone's article, and pull everyone together with enthusiastic buy-in and participation. What good does it do to develop all these plans and steps if people are indifferent, uninvolved, can't relate and don't really care?

So now you're wondering, "So what is this magical thread that can run through all things, and all people, and pull everyone together with a big happy smile on their face and enthusiastic participation?"

I know, you're thinking: It almost seems like there is a way to acquire valuable real estate in the minds of students, teachers, parents and admins that programs them to come together, join hands, and sing in perfect harmony. There is. The name of that valuable real estate is someone's "self image." You see, it's human nature to act consistently with one's self image, for better or worse. If a student sees themself as smart and successful, they'll act accordingly. If a student sees themself as a confused troublemaker, they'll gravitate towards poor decisions and trouble. One's self image is very much like an auto pilot that works on the subconscious level. People may even consciously try to overpower it, and may succeed fighting urges, but the subconscious tends to win out in the long run.

So how do you program this little nugget of brain power known as the "self image?" If you're familiar with memory hooks and learning/remembering things by association, you're ahead of the game. A common memory hook is using acronyms to remember a cluster of words. For example, ROAR could stand for Respect, Organized, Accepting and Responsible. But that's NOT the memory hook I'm talking about. The process involves hanging new information on something that is already in a person's long term memory. The more it is anchored in the long term memory, the better. The alphabet is anchored at a very early age. The word ROAR is anchored shortly after someone knows how to read. The words Respect, Organized, Accepting and Responsible are hung upon those anchors/hooks so the person can go to the very familiar place in their brain and find/retrieve the related information.

While the alphabet and acronyms are handy hooks, they still don't reside in that special place known as one's self image. No, that's a very special place, and it takes a very special code to crack open the vault. But I have that code, and I'm going to share it with you now. This was a discovery I made several years ago when I did a survey to over 4,000 people, asking them if they remembered what their high school mascot was. 97% of respondents said they did, and perhaps even more impressive, that same 97% said they'd remember it for life. The other 3% were home schooled or didn't have a mascot. What's important to understand about this is WHY virtually everyone remembers what their school mascot is. It's because it's part of their self image. It was embedded in their mind during their formative years, when everyone is trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. Being a tiger, bear or eagle is a very alluring and easy thing to give yourself permission to do. It satisfies your very primal emotional need for social acceptance in the group you most identify with, and spend your time with. It's a no brainer, and so it happens almost seamlessly, and with enthusiastic buy-in. It's almost magical how the school mascot so easily is adopted into one's self image - a place that is typically locked down like Fort Knox, and hard to penetrate by even the most sophisticated pyscologists. Yet the mascot slipped in their effortlessly, and will be camped out there for life.

Why don't we use the mascot as a memory hook for core values like respect and responsibility? Traditionally we've missed the mark with how we've used this valuable mental real estate. We've used it for school spirit - dominating, taunting and winning at competitive sports, and turning the mascot into a bumbling clown for entertainment. I'm not bashing competitive sports or light entertainment. I'm just saying we can do better things with this valuable real estate. When we use a mascot as a memory hook for teach core values, as the child grows up those values will become guiding principals that help them navigate through life with greater ease and success.

Reference Articles:

Building A Strong School Culture

Harvard Graduate School of Education, by Leah Shafer

  • Look in the mirror.
  • Select staff wisely.
  • Teach what you’d like to see.
  • Broadcast your vision.
  • Make your vision tangible.
  • Restructure social networks.

How Do You Build a Positive School Culture?

Paula Freeman, PhD

  • Be Clear and Consistent
  • Narrate the Positive
  • Assume Positive Intent
  • Immediately Address Negative Actions

12 Tips For Building An Exceptional School Culture

Courtesy of Lifetouch®

  • Address core values and your mission
  • Build values into the regular curriculum
  • Hold assemblies aimed at creating togetherness, teamwork and school pride
  • Encourage older students to mentor younger students
  • Regularly and publicly recognize student achievements and positive behavior
  • Support your staff with encouragement and recognition
  • Teach staff specific language and actions to use
  • Maintain zero tolerance for bullying
  • Follow through on discipline so students feel secure
  • Address any source of toxicity
  • Acknowledge different learning styles and create an inclusive environment
  • Enlist parents' support

The Steps to Creating a Positive School Culture

Matthew Younghans, Principal of Little Tor Elementary School

  • Invest in people, build relationships
  • Have a shared vision
  • Be a role model, set the tone
  • Praise and celebrate

9 Ways to Build a Strong School Culture

  • Moira McNally from Teaching Nomad
  • Involve parents in a meaningful way
  • Establish school values and norms
  • Be consistent with discipline and celebration
  • Engage students in beneficial ways outside of instructional time
  • Establish fun traditions and rituals
  • Encourage open communication of ideas and innovation
  • Professional develop for staff
  • Design and maintain a comfortable physical environment
  • Annually review and adjust the pillars of your school culture