Shaping school culture begins with effective leadership, which then permeates and fosters positive change throughout the school. This is because effective leadership influences everyone who works for a school, and everyone of these staff members is either directly or indirectly responsible for students’ learning. For a school leadership and culture to be successful therefore, it needs everyone on board, facilitating educational experiences that cater for students’ interests, innate desire for creativity, and a need for play. Teaching staff, administration and support personnel must work collaboratively in order to create a learning experience that will bring significant value to students.
I’ve been reading Eric Sheninger’s book, Uncommon Learning, which has given me some great ideas on the topic of school culture and the role that leadership can play. According to Sheninger, there are several key ingredients to effective leadership that promote a positive school culture:
1. Clear vision and communication – According to Leithwood & Riehl (What we know about successful school leadership, 2003), effective leaders help their schools develop or endorse visions that embody the best thinking about teaching and learning while inspiring others to reach for ambitious goals. In the digital world, leaders can use a variety of communication channels to reach all possible stakeholders. In addition to memos, meetings, newsletters, and email, messages can be amplified using social media tools such as Google Classroom, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
2. Allowing for autonomy and ownership – Unprecedented learning opportunities can take place when school leadership gives up some control, allowing learners (teachers included!) to explore their own passions and interests, enabling them to take ownership of their learning, while helping the community to develop growth mindsets. According to Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck (2007), learners with growth mindsets have been found to be more motivated to learn and exert effort and outperform those with fixed mindsets. An excellent example of autonomy and ownership in classroom practice is Genius Hour. Genius Hour is most often associated with Google, where employees were able to spend up to 20 per cent of their time working on projects they were passionate about. Motivated by curiosity and passion, the big idea for Google was that employees would be happier, more creative, and more productive, which benefitted the company in terms of morale and overall performance. This concept can be transferred to the school system by allowing teachers and students time to explore their own curiosity, and then integrating this time into opportunities for meaningful teaching and learning.
3. Collaboration – Empowering teachers to work and collaborate toward a common goal makes them aware of their responsibilities and the important role each one of them plays in the work (Hughes & Pickeral, 2013). Again, this requires allocating time specifically for this purpose. Well planned collaborative workshops can be a great way for teachers to share ideas about professional practice.
4. Modelling – Initiating sustainable change requires educators to model the same expectations that they have of others. This is true of teachers and leaders alike. Setting a direction and helping people implement a change are imperative for the successful implementation of any initiative. Eric Sheninger (2016) makes a very valuable point in his book ‘Uncommon Learning’, that we should move away from telling people what to do , and instead take them where they need to be. Accoording to Sheninger, ‘if you want change, model it. Modelling the way is one of the best things a leader can do to move others down a different path to initiate and sustain change.’
5. Promote Risk Taking – The right culture encourages teachers to try new strategies and activities in the classroom. In such an environment, teachers feel they have the autonomy and support to be as innovative as they want. The same is true for students. As Branden (1994) states in ‘The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem’, students who feel empowered are more confident and exhibit more self-esteem. Confidence can increase a person’s ability to think and cope with basic challenges. Self-esteem can increase feeling worthy and the ability to assert one’s needs and wants.
6. Support – Time, professional learning, infrastructure, and resources are all areas of support that help to create a positive school culture. Teachers need time for example, to innovate, try new things, and learn. In particular, schools need to consider ways to free up teachers from meaningless meetings and instead use that time for professional development. My own experience of this is through the delivery of workshops, which I always strive to make as fun and engaging as possible. After all, what we feel we remember, which is why attaching emotion to learning is so impactful! As professional development time with teachers can be short (usually, a training workshop lasts just one hour), I believe there are three key elements to making workshops for teachers successful:
– the core idea must be presented as simply as possible
– the training must allow for creative expression
– at least one new skill must have been acquired by the end of the session
In other words, fun & engaging PD workshop = easy to grasp + allows for creative expression + provides new skill(s)
Shared vision, effective communication, autonomy, collaboration, modelling, risk taking and support all contribute to a transformational school culture, which leads to greater levels of teacher satisfaction and student achievement.