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Assessing the health of your school's culture


school cultureMost of us resist change. When it’s subtle, we may simply grumble at the lack of familiarity or the disruption of a comfortable routine. But when change is drastic, those who are directly affected may vehemently justify their routines (since this is, after all, the way things have always been done!), protest, even threaten mutiny.

This sort of response may be natural, yet it is rarely in a school’s best interest.

Before we begin making changes, however, we must resist the urge to oversimplify the health of a culture by categorizing it as “good” or “bad.” Rarely is it that simple. In their book, How to Help Your School Thrive Without Breaking the Bank, John Gabriel and Paul Farmer describe three types of culture: benign, ill, and healthy; we found this to be helpful and have described each category below.

Benign culture
This is the most common school culture. While not “detrimental,” this type of culture is, as Gabriel and Farmer suggest, “stagnant and in need of exercise.” In a benign school culture,

  • Staff members assess one another primarily according to friendliness
  • Most teachers have never observed their peers’ professional capacity
  • Most conversations lack substance and rarely relate to professional content
  • Members are content and believe that student work, teachers, and administration are all “good enough”
  • There is little to no talk about action or improvement
  • Students meet, but do not exceed, expectations
  • Meetings are polite, but rarely consist of more than determining who is teaching what and when
  • Members are left to do what they want and often shielded by pedagogical or philosophical initiatives that might disrupt their routine
  • Students may have a respectable passing rate, but there is no initiative to exceed the status quo
  • New teachers with new ideas are outnumbered; their ideas are forgotten or ignored

Ill Culture
Fewer schools find themselves on this end of the spectrum, but when they do, this is what you may find:

  • Cynicism, pessimism and distrust are rampant
  • There is a lack of cohesion and a unified set of goals
  • There is a lack of common understanding on the purposes of classes, teams, and departments
  • Teachers act alone
  • Departments may even campaign against fellow departments or department members
  • Leadership is held by a few and is not exercised prudently or justly
  • Decisions are unsupported because leadership does not communicate them to staff, seek “buy-in,” or even take ownership of them
  • Leadership uses power to drive their own agendas and punish rather than explore possibilities and build support
  • Turnover is high and veterans tend to perpetuate a poisonous culture because they outlast newcomers

Healthy Culture
In a healthy school culture,

  • People work across departments and professional roles toward common goals
  • Staff members are collaborative and reflective risk takers: They want to fix things that aren’t working and improve things that are
  • Educators engage in honest, professional dialogue on curriculum, assessment, data, interventions, and remediation
  • Members leave meetings having learned something new
  • The meeting room is a safe space where members are free and encouraged to be vulnerable, honest and reflective
  • Teachers willingly (and of their own volition) consult one another when they encounter problems or need new ideas
  • Practices are transparent and grounded in research
  • Leadership is horizontal: staff members are given the opportunity to explore and discuss decisions
  • The principal empowers the assistant principal to make decisions, lead initiatives, and speak and act on his behalf
  • An administrative leadership team meets to discuss books and articles that have been assigned to them by the principal
  • The school’s departments generally follow the administrative team’s example of sharing leadership and encouraging professional growth
  • Each departments guiding vision and mission statements were developed through honest, stimulating, and boundary-pushing dialogues

Like organisms, schools are, as Gabriel and Farmer suggests, “not unlike living, breathing organisms”: they must adapt to the environment or they will die. Change may not come easy, but it is integral to the success and health of our schools.  



This sort of response may be natural, yet it is rarely in a school’s best interest.
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