Friday, August 20, 2010

School Culture and Change

We have seen it before: well-meaning leaders find a well-researched program to meet an important need.  They introduce it to the faculty, do their best to rev everyone up—and then the reform effort struggles for awhile before withering away.   What happened?  Perhaps teachers were stuck in their “caves,” doing their own thing.  Maybe there was direct hostility to the idea of doing things differently.  Or maybe everyone had seen so many reform ideas come and go that they just didn’t see the point in trying.

Even the most promising plan for change will fail if the school culture is not ready to embrace it.   If the idea is the seed, school culture is the ground in which it is planted.  If that ground is “toxic,” nothing will grow.

In his article “Positive or Negative?” Ken Peterson defines a toxic school culture as one that “lacks a clear sense of purpose, have norms that reinforce inertia, blame students for lack of progress, discourage collaboration, and often have actively hostile relations among staff” (2002).   In such a culture, staff learning, which is vital to successful school change, is greatly hindered. 

On the other hand, in a positive school culture, staff is open to trying new things because there is a high level of trust and collegiality.  Commitment and motivation are high.  These qualities provide fertile ground for positive change.

If the school culture is broken, before any substantial reform can occur, it needs to be repaired.  School culture is not a fixed attribute; it is created and maintained by those in the school, and it can be changed.  Peterson describes a school that began combining professional development with shared meals, nurturing bonds between staff members.  Along with rituals and celebrations, leaders can work to see that staff members have the resources they need, and opportunities for collaboration.

Working with staff to shape a positive school culture will go a long way toward preparing for lasting change to take root. 

Peterson, K.D. (2002). Positive or Negative? JSD. Retrieved from  


Lynne said...

For a reform initiative to take seed there needs to be a functional school culture. It is remarkable how a toxic school culture can change when a series of celebrations are instituted by the school principal. The school principal must demonstrate an authentic commitment to the celebrations if they are going to spark greater collaborative spirit.

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