Making Practices Practical: Building and Sustaining a Positive Culture

By Dr. Danielle Bosanec, Chief Academic Officer, Pewaukee School District

In a series of articles that explore research-based, high-leverage practices, AWSA connects with high-impact leaders across the state to learn how to continually improve student learning. This article is focused on building and sustaining a positive school culture. 

For many school leaders, the busy nature of their day-to-day schedules can make it difficult to focus on school culture. But over the long term, it is critical to build a culture in which the needs of students and their success comes first, differences are celebrated, and students and staff are challenged to continuously improve. 

Here is what we learned from some of Wisconsin’s top educational leaders. 

School Culture is Built (and Destroyed) in the Blink of an Eye

Whether or not you think you are building a culture, you are. It happens every moment of every day. 

Staff members look to their leaders to witness the culture of the school. Such things as sincerity, transparency, empathy, mission and a focus on students can be apparent in even the briefest of interactions. Never lose track of this. 

Students Should Come First

Perhaps the simplest way to create a positive school culture is to focus on the school’s mission to meet the needs of every student, every day. Although leaders may encounter pushback as the culture of a school changes, holding ourselves and others accountable to the school’s mission and celebrating the actions that match the mission and are student-centered demonstrates that our actions align with our work as it relates to meeting the needs of all students. 

Relationships Matter

Having strong relationships with staff and students was a key point for those with whom we spoke on this topic. Several educational leaders spoke of the importance of truly listening to students, parents and staff; putting trust in their staff; seeking real feedback; and having honest lines of communication as critical to their success in building a positive culture. 

Leaders also reminded us that staff members who neither trust leadership nor believe that leaders are being transparent will be less willing to follow that leader. Instead, leaders must be a warm demander – being kind and empathetic but also willing to have difficult conversations when warranted.

Positive Cultures Differ from School to School

Some leaders, including those who lead two schools in their district, remind us that while there may be similarities between schools, each has its own culture. With this in mind, school leaders must work to understand the culture of their schools and not seek to find a one-size-fits-all culture. Each school is unique.

Monitoring Culture

The leaders we spoke with explained that they could measure progress toward improving their school’s culture by listening to what students, parents, staff and community members say about the school.  

“Don’t just walk your hallways. Be in the trenches so that you know the strife your staff is facing,” said one leader. 

Beyond being visible and approachable as means to gather feedback, all the leaders described the necessity of being vulnerable to feedback and developing processes to seek regular input.  

Many schools employ surveys to parents, students and staff to solicit this input. But ultimately, leaders indicated the best feedback was students’ academic growth, the closing of equity gaps, and student behavioral data. If students are learning at greater levels each year and achievement gaps are closing, the culture of the school is likely to be positive.  

While student learning can also be evidence of other elements of a school, such as strong curriculum and instructional practices, students will have a difficult time learning if they do not feel safe and do not have expectations for success.    

QUICK TAKE: The greatest champion for kids in the school should be the principal. School culture is not built overnight, but rather over time, through myriad interactions. Successful school leaders focus squarely on putting students first and doing the hard work related to equity and ensuring all students succeed. Building a great school culture means having strong and trusting relationships. This means listening and being willing to have hard conversations. Finally, just like with any other improvement effort, it should be monitored with careful consideration to the ultimate measure: student success. 

Special thanks to the educational leaders who contributed their thoughts to this article: 

  • Amy Buffington, Sheboygan Area School District 

  • Diane Galow, Neenah Joint School District

  • Chase Gildenzoph, School District of Westfield 

  • Jean Hoffmann, Wauwatosa School District 

  • Todd Schroeder, Winneconne Community School District 

Each of their schools has demonstrated a) high growth in reading and/or math scores in the past three school years or more with strong to exceptional proficiency, or, b) reading and/or math proficiency in the top 10% in the past three years or more with strong to exceptional growth, or, c) a school comprised of a high-poverty population, with high growth in reading and/or math in the past three years or more, or d) gap closure on reading and/or math.

Note: If you are looking for support to grow your or your leadership team’s capacity in a high-leverage area please review which AWSA academy might be right for you on page 7 of the Professional Learning Catalog.

April 21st Edition

The Locus of Control Exercise: Building Resilience By “Letting Go”, Joe Schroeder

While serving others can be incredibly rewarding, it also can take its toll, especially this past year with COVID.  So AWSA has been offering monthly self-care sessions since August to help. One of the more impactful activities we have incorporated into our webinar series this past year is the Locus of Control Exercise, which helps people manage overwhelm and build resilience.  This article will walk you through how to incorporate this into your own self-care.

Read more.

I Like It Here, Don’t You? School Culture Revisited, Tammy Gibbons

Depending on who you talk to in a school, there may be variance in how people feel about their work environment.  Some may say it is their favorite place they’ve ever worked and in the very same place, another may say that morale is low.  How can this possibly be?  How can the same environment create vastly different feelings in those that work there? 

Read more.

COVID Updates

State and Federal Mask Requirements: On March 31st, the State Supreme Court invalidated the Governor’s Emergency Order which included the statewide mask mandate. The court's decision does not affect any local mask mandates, including those issued by school boards.  Unless and until a local school board rescinds policy or plans that include wearing masks at school, those mandates remain in place.  Also, it is important to remember that masks are required at all times on school buses by federal order (COVID 19 Transportation Guide, pg. 3).

$175 Million Allocated for Testing in WI Schools: The Wisconsin DHS will spend about $175 million to provide options to schools for testing staff and students.  Schools will be able to choose from different testing options for the spring and summer and further options will be available in the fall for the 2021-2022 school year. More information will be available as plans for those options take shape.  Testing will be offered on a voluntary basis and will not be mandated.

Updated Guidance on Graduation/Other Ceremonies: The WI DHS has updated guidance on its COVID Schools and Child Care page.  Scroll down to “additional resources” and click on “Recommendations for Graduation Ceremonies”.

It's Everyone’s Lift - How Leadership Can Help, Edward Snow and Annette Smith, DPI

By design, schools are meant to be nurturing safe and secure places where staff members are always looking out for the well-being of each and every child.  Principals, administrators, teachers, aides, custodians, bus drivers all play a role in a student's physical safety.

Read more.