School and Classroom Cultures: Easy To Describe but Tough To Create and Sustain

Probably the most important—and the most difficult—job of an instructional leader is to change the prevailing culture of a school. The school’s culture dictates, in no uncertain terms, ‘the way we do things around here.’ A school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the president of the country, the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal, teachers, and parents can ever have. One cannot, of course, change a school culture alone. But one can provide forms of leadership that invite others to join as observers of the old, architects of the new. The effect must be to transform what we did last September into what we would like to do next September.

Roland Barth, “The Culture Builder,” Educational Leadership, 5( 8) May 2002, p. 6


We speak of classroom and school cultures glibly. Listen to both experts and practitioners describe creating and sustaining a positive school culture for learning as if building it were as easy as a paint-by-numbers picture (see here, here, and here).

Both principals and teachers are leaders who can and do create cultures, knowingly and unknowingly, with the aid of students. Consider that teachers create from scratch a culture for learning (or not learning) in their classrooms. If they are novices, newcomers bring a clean slate although student carry into classrooms expectations and attitudes about what classroom teaching and learning should be all about. Experienced teachers in a school have already created cultures that students have heard about from brothers and sisters and other students. In even the most dismal of “dropout factories” in big cities, there will be some teachers whose classroom cultures have created islands of learning in a failing school. When that teacher leaves the school, the island disappears.

In entering elementary and secondary school classrooms, say after two months of the academic year have gone by, students and astute observers can see and feel immediately that there is “the way we do things around here.” Even if students cannot put into words what they feel about a particular teacher’s classroom, they surely sense the unwritten rules when they move from their kindergarten teacher to the first grade classroom across the hall. So do secondary school students as they shift classes every hour from math to English to history to science. Not only are subjects different but each teacher’s beliefs, attitudes, academic focus, and daily practices shape that classroom culture. Consider the way the teacher gets students’ attention–countdown from 5 to 1, hand claps. Or asks questions–call names of students before or after question. Or listen to students–eye contact and building on student answers. Or get students to participate and collaborate–small groups, pairs. The signals and unwritten rules reflect the norms, rituals, and beliefs about learning that teachers have created for their 600 square feet of turf. Classroom cultures span different but crucial continua such as between positive to negative, active to passive, safe to unsafe in asking questions, the prizing of curiosity to enforcing compliance. Students and keen visitors pick up these different aspects of classroom culture in the agenda for the classroom lesson, the kind, amount, and quality of the back-and-forth between teacher and students, what’s on the walls of the room, how the furniture is organized, and scores of other clues. Culture becomes the air students breathe when they enter and exit classrooms.

Same issue of culture, of how “we do things around here,”  applies to the school. and here is where the principal enters the scene. Principals of 500- to 1500 students schools cannot directly create a positive climate but they surely can create the conditions for both teachers and students where one can flourish. If any research finding has persisted over time, it is that principals have an indirect effect on students attitudes, behaviors, and academic performance through building structures and conditions that communicate at a glance and in a few words “how we do things around here” (see here, here, and here).

But a school culture is not a thing that can be put together like a LEGO truck. It is a fragile creation. Neither is there a technology that can fix a school culture by a pill, an injection, or even dumping the principal. Nor is there a recipe where tablespoons of vision, teaspoons of collaboration, and salt and pepper individuals create the positive, learning-prone, problem solving ethos that pervades some but hardly most schools. There are many moving parts to a school culture that interact in a moment in time. In a flash–the departure of a principal, sudden staff turnover–can cripple a school culture. No recipe exists for re-building that previous culture. It is a mix of ineffable ingredients that include a principal’s beliefs, character, traits, determination, and political finesse to create a coalition of teachers, students, and parents to secure resources, and slowly build brick-by-brick a school culture that meshes with the community.




Filed under how teachers teach, leadership

3 responses to “School and Classroom Cultures: Easy To Describe but Tough To Create and Sustain

  1. This is especially timely when there are considerable commercial and political pressures on schools to be more “businesslike.” Anyone who has worked extensively in commercial change management will recognise this axiomatic expression: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    Anyone aiming to change the culture of a school would be wise to heed that advice.

    • larrycuban

      Now that is a great phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I had not heard it before. Thanks, Joe.

  2. Pingback: Teaching is Design: Cultural Constraints | Teaching as Dynamic

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