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The conscious construction of an effective whole-school culture

Written by: Tara McVey
5 min read
Tara McVey, Vice Principal, Towers School, UK

In supportive schools, teachers not only tend to stay and be more effective, they also improve at a much greater rate over time (Kraft and Papay, 2014). For a school like ours, that is a game-changer. In our school, the one-stop solution for improving recruitment and retention, and thus school improvement as a whole, was to consciously create a whole-school culture that staff would buy into – one that allows staff to stay and improve. This culture is built on competent leadership, community and belonging, clarity and care.

Competent leadership

Megan Tschannen-Moran (Tschannen-Moran and Gareis, 2015) has found that trust is strongly correlated with the overall performance of a school. She is clear about the behaviours that generate trust. She talks about benevolence, genuine care, openness and honesty, anchored in moral principles where our actions match our words. She also discusses reliability and competence in terms of the need to do the things that we are meant to do, the things we say that we will do. We need to ensure that we always follow through and always follow up. It’s so simple but, in some schools, it is the thing that slips. It is about doing the simple things consistently well – all the time, with the same enthusiasm on day 100 as you had on day one. Competence also means knowing enough; it means reading up, following the evidence and continuing to learn. If you’re a line manager for history, you can only really have a competent conversation about curriculum if you have made sure that you know enough about it. So much of school leadership is about the domain-specific knowledge, and we have to put the time in to ensure that we gain that knowledge.

So, competence and reliability – these are the things that make or break trust, that make or break a leadership team. They are not necessarily glamorous – not visionary, dynamic or charismatic. Competence is about walking the walk every day, creating the supportive environment that ensures staff will stay.

Community and belonging

One aspect of self-determination theory suggests that all humans need relatedness to feel valued and belong. Dan Pink’s Drive (2009, p. 131), buiding on the work on self-determination theory, discusses the idea that ‘the most deeply motivated people – not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied – hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.’ The conscious creation of a community, with a definite and agreed mission, speaking with a common voice, helps to build that feeling of belonging for both staff and students. And if people feel that they belong, they will adopt the values and behaviours that are part of that community. 

One of the building blocks is the language that you choose and use. There is a real value in consciously choosing the words and phrases that sum up what you believe and that define the purpose of what you do – the words and phrases that offer a pedagogical shorthand for the way you teach and common phrases for your expectations of students. The flipside is in ensuring that staff feel that their own voice is heard. Creating what Amy Edmondson (2019) calls an environment of ‘psychological safety’, where the community is invited to engage and be honest, and where that honesty is greeted positively and productively, helps team members to feel that they are part of building that community too.

Clarity

In all schools, clarity is key. Part of an effective culture is the development of clear systems and structures – systems and structures that are obvious to all.

One of the elements that Kraft and Papay (2014) believe creates the kind of supportive school where staff stay and improve is having a robust system for managing behaviour. No matter what your system, you have to be certain what your rules and expectations are – and then make sure that everyone sticks to it. This can only be done with absolute clarity.

And this goes beyond policies. It is about clearly labelling and codifying what ‘good’ behaviour looks like to proactively create your behaviour culture. Students develop beliefs about the social norms of behaviour in our schools through observing peers. We can consciously create these norms by elevating the visibility of the behaviour that we want to see, influencing what our students notice and amplifying it by pointing it out. Examples are when we tell students about the fact that attendance keeps getting better and better, or when leaders and teachers on the corridors point out ‘how lovely and smart this class looks’. By recognising and elevating the behaviours that you want, you construct the norms that others will see. 

The same is true for teaching. The codifying of excellence here is not about having a ticklist. However, if you want to raise standards and achieve high-quality teaching across your school, you need to be clear about what good teaching looks like. And more than that, you need a clear level of understanding across your staff team, an absolute commitment to improvement, and a consistent method for ensuring that staff receive high-quality, unambiguous feedback. When we are clear about what excellence looks like and promote it continuously, it becomes automatised and just part of ‘what we do here’.

Care

Through all of this – through competent leadership, a collective sense of belonging to a community, and absolute clarity – you achieve care for your staff. Care is not an add-on. Our care for our staff and our students and our whole community runs through everything that we do, through every decision that we make. 

A whole-school culture

At the heart of everything that we do is our purpose. We believe that exceptional schools can change lives and give back to the community. And we believe that the building of a strong, definite and effective whole-school culture is a vital part of this.

In our school, we talk frequently about the fact that we are stronger together – and we genuinely mean it. By consciously constructing our school culture, we have increased expectations of students, doubled our intake, and reached a level where staff retention levels are excellent and when we try to recruit, we get a strong field of applicants. But the statistic that truly shows the impact of our culture on how our staff feel is the fact that we have created a school where 100 per cent of our staff say that they are proud to work. And that makes us proud in turn.

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