The influence of leaders’ beliefs in shaping school culture

Dennis Sparks

As a relatively new teacher I was the only participant from my high school who attended a two-day, in-district workshop on mastery teaching.

I recall learning that virtually all of my students could learn virtually everything important that I wanted to teach them given sufficient time and alternative means of learning it. That made sense to me, and I left the workshop with the goal of shaping my teaching in ways consistent with that approach.

When I returned to my classroom following the workshop I explained to my students that I intended all of them to learn all or virtually all that was important in that class.

One of my quicker, more insightful students immediately asked what grade they would receive if they learned virtually everything. I couldn’t immediately recall that subject being addressed in the workshop, but it made sense to me that students who learned at the anticipated high levels would receive an “A” or a “B” for their learning, and that’s what I told them.

By the end of the day, though, I realized I had a problem in the form of my principal’s strongly held view that students’ grades ought to resemble a bell-shaped curved slightly skewed to the high side—more students would receive As and Bs than Ds and Fs, with the largest number of students receiving Cs. To ensure that this was so, he would inspect our grades at the end of each marking period and talk with those whose grades did not conform to that pattern.

Our principal’s belief in this areas was so strong that it seeped into teachers’ views of the school and of its curriculum and grading practices. We told ourselves that while we clearly had high standards—thus explaining the Ds and Fs—we also were good teachers because a larger than expected number of students achieved As and Bs, at least compared with the prediction made by the bell-shaped curve.

The principal and I negotiated a means by which I could experiment with my newfound, district-supported ideas and practices for one marking period so that I could prove I was not lowering academic standards, a task that required that I spend many more hours with him than I would have preferred reviewing the work of students to whom I intended to give As and Bs.

I left the school at the end of the academic year, and to the best of my knowledge mastery teaching left with me.

This was my first experience with the power of leaders’ beliefs—an important aspect of school culture—to influence whether and how new practices would be used, even those recommend by the school system. I didn’t then have a conceptual frame nor the language to describe it, but I was learning that culture trumps innovation.

What’s on your mind?

• What experiences have you had with school culture overpowering desirable new practices?

6 Responses to “The influence of leaders’ beliefs in shaping school culture”


  1. 1 emma December 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I love this blog. Great blog.

  2. 3 Patricia De Bello December 7, 2012 at 10:15 pm

       “Counterculture”–The two adults agreed to the handover in a quiet corner of the building, about 90 minutes after most staff would  have departed. Surreptiously and quickly the bag was handed over. One said to the other ” I need contact within 48 hours”–a school drug deal, testing answers, an arms deal….no. Sadly this true event was the giving of educational tapes re disabilities and parenting education from a secretary in the Pupil Personnel Office to a school social worker. The “tapes” had been carefully chosen by school psychologists attending a national conference several years earlier–as comprehensive, compassionate resources as part of a professional development library for the use of staff and students/ families. For a number of years prior to this furtive exchange, the previous administrator had encouraged all to use and share the information. After his replacement came, the “tapes” and library, while still theorectically available, were not really without fear of intimidation and other possible retribution. While other measures were initiated through the union, a number  of the professional staff of this department developed a “counterculture”…creative and inventive ways to help inform and educate parents and staff…and to ensure legal and moral due process and appropriate education. 

    • 4 Dennis Sparks December 8, 2012 at 8:33 am

      Your story clearly illustrates, Pat, how what leaders believe, understand, say, and do shapes the culture of schools and departments.

  3. 5 Kent Peterson August 16, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Every principal should know deeply their own beliefs. If they don’t know what they believe about teaching, innovation, students, parents–everything, they are likely to reduce improvement, damage teacher commitment, and reduce the joy of being an education.

    Dennis, thanks for raising this important topic.


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