Shaping school culture for continuous improvement

In October I spoke in Vancouver, BC to a group of educators assembled to consider ways to update and strengthen the British Columbia Principals’ and Vice Principal’s Associations’ Leadership Standards.

My “big idea” was that school culture weaves through every aspect of the school community and can be a powerful force for maintaining the status quo or for promoting continuous improvement.

I began my brief talk by offering several assumptions I hold about leadership and school culture:

• Leaders matter—it matters what leaders believe about teaching and learning and how it can be continuously improved, the depth of their understanding of those issues, and what they think, say, and do consistently over time.

• Therefore, it is essential that leaders who desire different results first change what they habitually think, say, and do.

• School culture trumps innovation.

• Consequently, shaping school culture is a basic and essential function of principals and teacher leaders who seek continuous improvement.

Cultural shifts

I then described several shifts that I thought were critical in establishing an ethos of continuous improvement. It’s important, I said, that school culture shifts from:

• confusion to clarity and incoherence to coherence,

• modest low-level goals to those that are stretching and compelling because they are embedded in moral purpose,

• superficial understanding of new ideas and practices to deep understanding,

• low trust within the school community to high trust,

• isolation to interdependent teamwork, and

• external accountability to accountability to one’s students and colleagues.

(Readers interested in learning more about these cultural shifts and others can peruse a series of essays on this subject.)

The realization of those shifts, I said, requires the development of new habits of mind and behavior by everyone in the school community—administrators, teachers, parents, and students. That development more often than not begins with leaders changing what they believe, understand, say, and do.

I concluded by telling the Vancouver group that I believed that the shaping of school culture is at its core profoundly human and for the most part occurs through sustained conversations in a variety of settings.

These shifts require that leaders cultivate within the school community fundamental personal and interpersonal qualities such as integrity, trust, risk taking, and being fully present and attentive to others. Perhaps most importantly, I said, they ask leaders to regularly experience quiet moments alone and with others so that they can hear the small, still voice within that ultimately informs all that they do.

What’s on your mind?

  • In your experience does school culture trump innovation, or does it have little to do with the widespread adoption of new ideas and practices?
  • To the extent that culture does trump innovation, how can administrators and teacher leaders shape it in a positive direction?

1 Response to “Shaping school culture for continuous improvement”


  1. 1 Kent Peterson December 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    For the past number of years, Terrence Deal and I have been writing about the importance of shaping positive and transforming “toxic” cultures. There is no doubt that school culture is crucial to school improvement.

    Sparks words provide a relevant and useful set of ideas–many actions quite difficult, but necessary. A piece everyone should read.

    I particularly thought his idea of “quiet moments to reflect” could be of use to school leaders of all types.


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