Both top down and bottom-up!

Ritika Chawla

Monday morning 8 a.m: As I walk towards WCS, a charter school in Philadelphia, Pennslyvania, USA, I see the friendly face of the school leader standing at the gate and shaking hands with every student as they enter and wishing them good morning.

A few weeks later, I am sitting inside the Teach for India classroom of a municipal school in Mumbai. Students enter through the door giving a hi-five to their teacher.

Another month later, inside a 4th grade classroom of a middle income school in Delhi, a child raises her hand seeking permission to use the washroom.

Schools across the world have a clearly defined and sometimes unspoken way of functioning. From the morning assembly to the school song to the annual day, everything is part of a school’s culture. From the minute they enter the school and through the day, students as well as teachers are exposed to various aspects of the school culture, which they consciously or unconsciously imbibe. These include the vision and values, beliefs and assumptions, rituals and ceremonies, history and stories, and physical symbols. For example, when you walk across the corridor during mornings when everyone might wish you or when the lunch bell rings and students run out of classrooms, there is a certain vibe in the space that makes you feel whether a school is a happy one or an orderly one that emphasizes discipline. Hence, culture can be seen, heard and felt in many ways.

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Over time, the school culture develops both organically as well as in planned ways. For example, in many schools across India teachers use a red pen for marking student work. It is strange as there is no defined rule on using red pens but it seems part of the teaching culture. When asked why they used red pens, many teachers said that the others in the school did when they had joined and so they assumed that it was what they were supposed to do. This is inorganic growth of culture based on certain beliefs and assumptions shared by the school community members. We often hear old teachers tell new ones that this is the way they do things around here. The vision and values along with policies and procedures defined by the school lead to organic growth where a lot of things are controlled by what has been ascertained. Hence, a school’s culture is shaped by its history, context and the people in it including teachers, students, administrative staff and parents. Just as culture is impacted by these aspects, it also impacts student learning and behaviour, school achievement and reform. For instance, school spaces that are free of corporal punishment positively impact student behaviour by allowing them to learn in a stress-free environment. Such an environment created with the help of teachers and students, makes teaching and learning more effective for both.

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Since, culture is impacted by and impacts the members of the school community, the onus of creating it and sustaining it lies on them as well. Yet, the leadership in all of this has a huge responsibility in creating a conducive environment for teachers as well as students. In order to ensure that culture is created and maintained more organically, school leaders can follow a four-step process.

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  1. Make/Mark: To ensure that their school represents a certain type of culture which reaches all members of the school community, school leaders need to first create a vision and then transform this vision into systems and structures. School leaders, with support from teachers and in many cases students, need to set procedures, expectations, and consequences across classes. These translate into a common or shared language for the teachers and it impacts the students the most as they then don’t have to switch gears to adapting to each teacher. I remember during my observations at WCS, I saw the teachers using a common behaviour management system having the same consequences when students did not behave as expected and students were very well aware of the expected behaviour and the rewards or consequence they would have to face if they followed/did not follow these.

    Another practice that I have seen being common across classrooms in many low-fee schools with great culture are ‘agreements’. These are classroom rules created by students in agreement with each other and with the support of their teacher – e.g. students will raise their hand to answer a question instead of shouting it out or when they need to step out of the classroom they would walk in a line instead of groups. The same expectations were applied in the playground, library, cafeteria, etc. Setting clear expectations/agreements tells the students that this is the positive environment you deserve. While creating consequences in conjunction with these agreements, the school leader, teachers and students need to ensure that these are appropriate, immediate and consistent. If a student runs out of line, then making them miss their lunch break probably isn’t the best consequence; instead s/he can be made to leave the class after everyone else.

    Things such as the school motto, school song, vision and mission also need to be stated and communicated to the school community members. Back in school as a student, I remember our school motto – One Planet the Earth, One Family the Mankind – was very visible as we had students from various nationalities as classmates and there were many activities around protecting our environment, being inclusive by celebrating various festivals and days. Such events created a sense of community and increased our sense of belonging towards the school.

    A major role that school leaders have is in building effective communication within the school especially among teachers as well as those outside, i.e., parents. Culture is also about relationships and these need to be built so that all members work collaboratively. Setting up weekly, fortnightly, monthly meetings, conducting one-on-ones, etc., are also deliberate ways of building culture in school.

  2. Model: Once the school leader along with other members has made the structures and systems for culture building, it is also important for him/her to model it well. Just creating the vision, values, etc., is not sufficient; school leaders might talk about these in staff meetings and display some of these in the school corridors to reinforce the cultural messages. From small things such as acknowledging that s/he does not know something and needs help from a staff member to being accepting of ideas of others and working collaboratively with transparency, there is a lot expected of the school leader. They need to think through the smallest of actions. For e.g., if they want a culture of collaboration among the teachers, they need to provide time and space for teachers to meet and plan together. They need to be mindful of their body language as well as the verbal cues that they give such as using more of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ to communicate collaboration instead of individualism.

    To create a positive environment, it is imperative that the school leader acknowledges and appreciates those around – both teachers and students. Writing a small appreciation note, praising someone in front of other members or individually acknowledging when they are doing something well, displaying exceptional student work, are some of the ways that school leaders can model positivity through actions.

  3. Monitor: Culture, even though not very tangible, can be identified by the school leader and other members of the school community especially by what it looks, sounds and feels like. For e.g., when you see students working in groups in classrooms, the culture encourages collaboration. Once the culture has been set and communicated, it needs to be assessed for improvement – what good bits need to be kept, and what harmful bits need to be changed.

    There are multiple tools through which school leaders can assess this – school and classroom walkthroughs, which many school leaders call ‘morning rounds’, teacher and student surveys, discussions in staff meetings, one-on-one conversations. While doing walkthroughs, school leaders pay attention to whether the school environment is physically safe and secure or not along with the interactions among the members of the school community, which depict the school’s culture. For e.g., while looking into a classroom, if desks are arranged in groups instead of rows, this indicates that students often work collaboratively. Similarly, on hearing conversations in classes and corridors, school leaders can pay attention to the level and tone of voice the teacher uses when talking to students and if the conversations are polite and respectful.

    When monitoring culture, school leaders must be prepared to use all of their senses and ask what do they hear, what do they see in the corridors and classrooms, what do they feel as they walk through the school.

  4. Maintain: In order to ensure that the culture in a school space is maintained, continual messaging is required. Things that are positive are sustained and replicated. With continuous monitoring, school leaders can find out what aspects of the culture are positive and should be reinforced and what aspects of the culture are negative and harmful and should be changed. Great culture is built by repeated practice by all members of the school community, especially teachers and students. Aristotle had said that we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. And positive culture building needs to be a habit not just for the school leaders but for all members.

To conclude, I would like to share an old saying – Rome was not built in a day – and neither can you build the culture of an organization over night. Building a great culture is like running a marathon and not a sprint, a process that needs to be repeated consistently.

The author is the Curriculum Head for India School Leadership Institute (ISLI) and has done MA in Education at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She completed her Teach for India fellowship in 2012 and can be reached at [email protected].