6 School Culture Building Components

A trusted school leader exemplifies Connection when he or she “fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation.”[1] Shaping the schools’ culture and  fostering community is a challenging responsibility for school leaders. They need to be careful not to abandon or abdicate their role, while at the same time empowering those they manage with shaping, building, and manifesting the school’s sense of community. We are relational beings and we function best when we operate in dependence of each other. An effective model of school leadership is one of empowering others to the greatest extent possible, without abdicating or withholding involvement and responsibility. Here are six components to support that work, and their effectiveness is built on a single and shared factor. Each component must be INTENTIONAL.

Intentional Collaboration

Educational administration literature and research repeatedly heralds the importance of creating, fostering, and developing an organizational culture built on collaboration.

“Leadership is not a solo act; it’s a team performance… The winning strategies will be based upon the ‘we’ not ‘I’ philosophy. Collaboration is a social imperative. Without it people can’t get extraordinary things done in organizations.”[2]

There are times when school leaders make decisions and push ahead with certain agendas – but these should be rare. These rare moments are typically marked by some type of pressure, which cannot be controlled (e.g. externally defined timelines from a local authority, etc.).

In other words, when time intrudes, a more unilateral approach is necessary, but when time is not an issue and a goal is to develop the skills and knowledge that enable teachers to contribute to decision making, then collaboration is not only more likely but also necessary. We recommend a developmental model when time permits because ultimately we want teachers to initiate their own leadership acts and accept responsibility; that is, we want to empower teachers.[3]

Culture is defined, built, affirmed, and developed through collaboration.[4] Some research suggests that fostering a professional community through collaboration is accomplished by stakeholders reflecting on fundamental questions.[5] Questions like:

  • Does our collaboration make a change in how we operate?
  • Does our collaboration meet the needs of an ever changing and complex school environment?
  • Does our collaboration make an impact beyond ourselves – producing knowledge and resources for others?

Questions such as these require meaningful and thoughtful conversations, which result in fostering a greater sense of community and defined school culture.

The importance and value of collaboration in fostering school culture, as well as in defining the professional practice of teachers and administrators cannot be overstated.

Intentional Public Relations

Trusted school leaders know the value and importance of developing, maintaining, and adhering to Public Relations (PR) policies that serve the needs and interests of the school, and yet are nuanced to address their local community and setting. The very point and function of PR is making a deeper Connection with stakeholders through the fostering of a greater sense of community.

Data generated from a sociological inventory are essential in a developing PR policy, which genuinely and authentically meets the unique needs of the school. For example, the PR policies and practices of public schools located in rural mid-western American communities vary dramatically from private independent faith-based schools located in dense urban or inner city settings in a developing country.

This can be seen in policies that define the extent to which the local community’s physical presence on campus is encouraged. That single issue will potentially have opposite definitions and goals depending on the school’s sociological setting. In a rural and relatively safe environment, local participation may be welcomed and highly encouraged; in the inner city in a developing country, safety concerns guide administrators to operate a closed or limited-access campus. Both approaches influence the school’s culture and have an impact on the perceived level of Connection with school leaders.

Intentional Partnerships

Public Relation’s policies address the extent to which schools embrace community partnerships. Intentional alignment with various partners has a definable correlation to school culture.[6] Partnerships typically considered include business partnerships, university or community college partnerships, service-learning partnerships, and church-based or ministry-based ones. Each of these presents potential positive and negative impacts on the school’s culture. Leaders need to consider which partnerships support the school’s mission, values, and current priorities.

Many schools have become sidetracked into good partnerships, but not necessarily ones supporting the school’s essential direction. The most successful and trusted schools carefully enter into community partnerships after identifying that these support their main objectives (e.g. student learning, teacher development, etc.).[7]

Intentional Branding

Public Relation’s policies support and build up the school’s brand. These policies run the gamut from the design and distribution of the school’s logo to the use of social media, press, and media outlets. The brand should be carefully defined, understood, and protected to ensure that all of the school’s storytellers (i.e. administrators, teachers, students, coaches, admissions staff, etc.) tell the same story. A unified and shared story creates a greater level of Connection and defines school culture.[8]

When working on branding policies, it is very important to remember that the school brand is not just about marketing and development, but it actually affects student learning. As seen in earlier research, schools with highly trusted brands also experience higher levels of student achievement. The work of PR in most companies and businesses is supporting a stronger and healthier financial bottom-line. That is a desired outcome for independent schools as well, however, well initiated and guided PR policies support better educational outcomes and a stronger sense of Connection and school culture.

Intentional PR Goals

Fostering community and developing culture is intentional work. Effective PR programs establish data-driven goals to support that work. This means those responsible for drafting PR goals must have access, as well as insight, into understanding multiple data sources regarding the school and surrounding community – starting with data from the most recent accreditation process. Nearly all accrediting agencies require schools to produce both internal and external surveys and focus groups during the accreditation process. These data points provide a large amount of information to consider when establishing PR goals.

In addition to being data-driven, PR goals must be established through the filter of the school’s stated mission, values, and current priorities. Keeping PR goals aligned with the school’s top priorities ensures that work and effort actually supports the desired outcome of making meaningful connections with stakeholders.

Intentional PR Strategies

Public Relations strategies are numerous, and vary based on physical and human resources. An assessment of the school’s current PR assets should be conducted, as well as an evaluation of the effectiveness and return of those assets, before initiating additional investments. For example, evaluate the impact of the school’s current website and social media footprint prior to contracting a social media firm.

Strategies need to be identified based on the goals and outcomes desired to support the PR program. For example, building support with parents through Town Hall meetings may be more effective in introducing a new grading system than simply making announcements through social media. Facebook is not the answer to all PR needs.

An intentional, thoughtful, mission-centered, data-driven PR program can assist school leaders in developing deeper connections with all stakeholders, as well as define school culture. This takes time, commitment, focus, energy, and resources. Quality PR programs resulting in higher levels of trust do not just happen; they require significant attention and investment in the fostering of shared beliefs.[9]

©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.

[1] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 699-700, Kindle.

[2] DuFour and Marzano, Leaders of Learning, 239-241, Kindle.

[3] Hoy and Miskel, Educational Administration, 371, Kindle.

[4] Judith Winn and Linda Blanton, “The Call for Collaboration in Teacher Education,” Focus on Exceptional Children 38, no. 2 (2005): 1-10.

[5] Judith J. Slater and Ruth Ravid, “Collaboration in Education,” Collaboration in Education (2007): 8-12.

[6] Linda Valli, Amanda Stefanski, and Reuben Jacobson, “Leadership in School-community Partnerships,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 141, (2014): 110-114.

[7] Patricia P. Willems and Alyssa R. Gonzalez-DeHass, “School – community partnerships : Using authentic contexts to academically motivate students,” School Community Journal 22, no. 2 (2012): 9-30.

[8] Grant David McCracken, “Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning, and Brand Management,” Journal of Advertising Research 46, no. 3 (2005): 226.

[9] Brad L. Rawlins, “Prioritizing stakeholders for public relations,” Institute for Public Relations (March 2016): 14.

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