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Building a Learning Community: The Culture and Climate of Schools

Module by: Angus MacNeil, Valerie maclin. E-mail the authors

School Culture

What makes a good school? In today's public schools, where diversity is vast and complex, a good school must provide a strong functioning culture that aligns with their vision of purpose. Good schools depend on a strong sense of purpose and leadership. However, in order to build a culture that is integral to school life, principals must gear their students, faculty, and staff in a common direction and provide a set of norms that describes what they should accomplish. Sergiovanni (2001) elaborates on the principal's influence in shaping school culture by stating that, once established in a school, strong culture acts as a powerful socializer of thought and programmer of behavior. Yet, the shaping and establishment of such a culture does not just happen; they are, instead, a negotiated product of the shared sentiments of school participants. When competing points of view and competing ideologies exist in school, deciding which ones will count requires some struggling. Principals are in an advantageous position to strongly influence the outcome of this struggle.

The building of school culture further requires that building leaders pay close attention to the informal, subtle or symbolic aspects of school life. Teachers, parents, and students should look for answers to questions such as, what is this school about? What is important here? What do we believe in? Why do things function the way they do? How do I fit into the scheme of things? As Greenfield (1973) stated, what many people seem to want from schools is that schools reflect the values that are central and meaningful in their lives. If this view is correct, schools are cultural artifacts that people struggle to shape in their own image. Only in such forms do they have faith in them; only in such forms can they participate comfortably in them.

Leaders of successful schools develop moral order that bind the people around them together. When establishing culture, principals must be able to infuse various ideas, beliefs, values, theories and decision making into their school. Collaborative discourse is a powerful tool that can be used to facilitate the process of developing school culture and climate. Leaders, who look to build their school communities, must recognize that educators, who work together, achieve a collective purpose resulting from their collegiality, which is critical in establishing a successful school. However, for meaningful collaboration to occur, capacity building must take place. Capacity building has frequently appeared in educational literature across the United States. Ann Lieberman (1997) coined this term which means, organizing schools for improvement by allowing teachers to work in teams and with instructional leaders to channel staff efforts towards a clear, commonly shared purpose for student learning. When channeled correctly, these habits and conditions allow staff members to work and contribute to a professional community. Such communities are places where teachers, specialist and building administrators engage in decision making, have a shared sense of purpose and work to support an infrastructure that involves alignment of instructions goals.

Newmann and Wehlage in their 1995 work, Successful School Restructuring, firmly link student achievement to the effective work habits of adults stating that the most successful school were those that used restructuring to help them as professional communities. Teachers and leaders collaborate and help one another achieve the purpose of student learning. Teachers and instructional supervisors in these schools help one another take responsibility for academic success. These schools which maintain a strong professional community are better able to offer authentic pedagogy and are more effective in promoting student achievement.

School leaders who give their attention to establishing their school culture by addressing the question, what is this school about, begin with a period of organization as the school initiates new collaborative processes that relates to norms, teams, vision, use of data, shared expectations, and ways of working together.

What Do We Believe In? Why Do We Function the Way We Do?

In a successful school, the culture of the school focuses on establishing a climate where the alignment of values and beliefs are embedded. The idea of developing this type of community allows all involved to develop a sense of group purpose. A recurring theme throughout the literature on instructional leadership is that a leader must have a clear vision. Stephen Covey reminds us that good leadership comes from shared vision and principles. Good leaders must have a sense of what he or she values, something to be committed to, a compass to guide their true north principles. Honesty and integrity, according to Covey, are examples of a leader's true north principle which are not taught, but are laws of the universe. (Covey, 1990) For the most part, a school's shared vision can be found in its mission statement. The central goal of the mission statement is to improve student learning and achievement. Yet, there is an underlining goal as well, which is to align the beliefs and values of a school. McEwan (2003) states, a vision will incorporate the collective ideas of everyone and will be a consensus statement of where you want to go together. Mission statements are also important because they are a statement of the school's purpose. It is vital to remember that the mission statement must be a collective generated statement and not a directive that is forced upon its staff. Therefore, the job of the supervisor is to continually explain, teach, share, demonstrate, and model those practices which can move teachers forward (McEwan, 2003).

To encourage a school culture and climate that promotes individuals who are bonded together by natural will, and who are together bound to a set of shared ideas, and ideals then principals must strengthen their efforts towards improving connections, coherence, capacity, commitment, and collaboration among their members (Sergiovanni, 2001).

The attributes of a supportive climate promoted in successful schools include:

  • Continual sharing of ideas- Teachers share ideas daily regarding vital issues of instruction, curriculum, testing, school organization, and the value of specific knowledge.
  • Collaboration-Teachers become involved in team teaching and other collaborative efforts in program development, writing, and research.
  • Egalitarianism- Teachers dispense with formalities and anyone who takes an interest in a department meeting can vote. The notion that the quality of ideas is more important than the source.
  • Practical application-Teachers ask themselves, How does what we are doing help students, teachers, and schools? What did we do this week to help?

Principals who desire to improve a school's culture, must foster an atmosphere that helps teachers, students, and parents know where they fit in and how they can work as a community to support teaching and learning. Creating a school culture requires instructional leaders to develop a shared vision that is clearly communicated to faculty and staff. Additionally, principals must create a climate that encourages shared authority and responsibility if they are to build a positive school culture.

References

Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Covey, S. (1990). Principle-centered leadership. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Goldhammer, R. (1980). Clinical supervision: Special methods for the supervision of teachers.New York: Holt.

Greenfield, Thomas B (1984). Leaders and schools: Willfulness and non-natural order, in Thomas Sergiovanni and John E. Corbally (Eds.), Leadership and Organizational Cultur. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Hoy, W., & Forsyth, P. (1986). Effective supervision: theory into practice. New York: McGraw-Hill Company.

Karp, S. (2005). The trouble with takeover. Educational Leadership, 62, (5), 28-32.

Lashway, L. (2003, July). Role of the school leader. Retrieved Feb 12, 2004, from http://eric.uoregon.edu/trends_issues/rolelead/index.html#providing

Lambert, L. (1998). Building leadership capacity in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

McEwan, E. (2003). 7 steps to effective instructional leadership. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corin Press.

McQuarrie, F., Wood, F. (1991, August). Designs on the job learning. Retrieved Feb 12, 2005, from http://www.nsdc.org/library/publications/jsd/wood203.pdf

Newmann, F., Wehlage T. (1996). Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Patterson, W. (2003). Breaking out of our boxes. Phi Delta Kappan, 84, (8), 569-577.

Sergiovanni, T. (2001). The Principalship: A reflective practice. 5th ed. San Antonio, TX: Trinity Press.

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