Positive School Culture: Make It the Principle

Guest post by Lizzie Sider

Lizzie Sider is an 18-year-old singer/songwriter born and raised in Boca Raton, FL. She is also the founder of the bully prevention foundation Nobody Has The Power To Ruin Your Day, through which she has personally visited over 350 schools with her original bully prevention assembly. In her post below, Lizzie offers principals some observations related to the importance of promoting a positive school culture. Lizzie’s endeavor highlights key values all global change ambassadors should possess, including promoting awareness/perspectives and empathetic action.

To see what global change ambassadors are working on and to learn more about NASSP’s student leadership initiative on global citizenship, visit makingglobalchange.org.

Lizzie Sider on her national bully prevention school tour. Photo by Darryl Nobles

In elementary school, I was badly teased, excluded, and ridiculed. I would come home from school crying almost every day, feeling defeated and not wanting to return. The strength that I ultimately gained through the process of overcoming the bullying inspired me to create my first bully prevention assembly, which combined music with messages of bully prevention, positivity, and encouragement. To date, I have led this same assembly at over 350 schools and before 150,000 children nationwide. My newest project, a free bully prevention video package, launched in December 2016 and is currently being used in over 3,400 schools, reaching more than 2 million children worldwide.

My experiences with bullying and bully prevention have given me insight into the important role that principals and other school leaders have in creating a positive environment for students. Imagine walking into a school as a visitor and being greeted by the principal as a fellow educator. Now imagine performing a live, upbeat assembly with hundreds of excited children who welcome you as a peer. In this unique dual role as both educator and student, I have been able to see what is really going on beneath the surface at a school, which is represented in its culture.

According to Dr. Kent D. Peterson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, school culture is “the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols, and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school.” A toxic school culture is detrimental and leads to intolerance and unhappiness among all students and administrators. In contrast, a healthy one is what makes a school exceptional.

Characteristics of an Exceptional School

From my observations, the principal makes all the difference in creating a positive school culture and is the one person who can make or break a school culture. Here are some characteristics of exceptional schools that I have seen and that principals should insist upon:

  • Positive and uplifting leadership. It’s the duty of the principal to be invigorated, inspired, and invested in the spirit and the demeanor of everyone in the school. Your example will set the tone for everyone else around you. Communicate well and be an example of good values and respectable behavior. The faculty and staff will notice your behavior and feel compelled to mimic it, and then the students will follow and adopt that same behavior as their own.
  • Mutual respect. Establishing mutual respect is key to opening all doors—conversation, understanding, discipline, etc.—with your teachers, counselors, students, and parents.
  • Making sure everyone feels part of a team. Acknowledge work well done and get to know those around you, because they’re your teammates. Everyone will work best together when they all feel like part of the same team.

    A student-made poster at a school, with handmade butterflies and a painted quote from Lizzie’s bully prevention campaign’s theme song, “Butterfly.” Photo by Lizzie Sider

  • Showcasing student art around the school. Encourage your teachers to engage in art activities with their classes and get those walls decorated with the students’ artwork! Seeing their own creations displayed inspires students to be more imaginative and more invested in their school community.

Making a School a Safe Space

A school should be a safe space for everyone in the school and it is up to the principal to set the tone for creating that safe space. Students should feel like they can come to the principal with any problems they might have and expect a compassionate adult who is actively listening and working with them to find a solution. Principals should also encourage teachers to submit new ideas to make the school better and, overall, model what the best choices are. Show students and teachers what to do with your own behavior.

As a principal, you set the bar for everyone in your school community regarding how to act, how to speak, how to regard others, and how to lead. It is your job to help everyone become the best version of themselves. A positive school culture may be only an aspiration or idea to some, but do your best to implement it in your school, and turn it from an idea into a practice. And then, principals, make it the principle.

Lizzie Sider can be reached at lizzie@nobodyhasthepowertoruinyourday.org 

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