Building School Culture by Starting Small

Guest post by Duane Kline

I have an admission to make. It turns out that after 31 years as a public school educator, I think school culture is the most important part of schooling. More important than curriculum, more important than assessment. Additionally, its importance is not solely for the benefit of students, but for the teachers and staff members who make the school what it is for the students.

As a principal, I am always pondering how to improve the culture of my school and how to make that culture work for the benefit of everyone in the building. I have found that whenever I have tried a program or a one-off strategy to “boost morale,” students and teachers can see the effort for what it is … usually an effort to get everyone to cooperate and smile. Of course, the results are temporary at best, and usually not effective in terms of real improvement.

PLCs to the Rescue

I have to admit, too, that my relationship with data has been sketchy over the years. I am suspicious, I suppose, of what numbers mean in our human context (“lies, damned lies, and statistics,” anyone?), though I find myself addicted to perusing and analyzing the work we do with teachers and students. Professional learning communities (PLCs) have given a core structure to that work and have served as a key tool for enhancing our school culture. Teachers are every bit as social as their students are and they covet the chance to work together. This collaboration is enhanced when the object of the work is meaningful to teachers and students; this is precisely what the PLC structure affords.

How Can We Enhance PLC Work?

The work of leading a school is largely developing the conditions for this meaningful work to occur. Giving teachers the opportunity to work together, and then supporting those opportunities with structures and resources, greatly enriches the working culture in the school building. When we started to introduce PLCs at Owen County High School, we looked at how we could combine teachers to approach students, data, and larger school issues as well. We have brought teachers together around content areas to focus on curricular and assessment data and issues, and have created common planning structures to facilitate this work. We have constructed PLCs around grade levels to address specific student-centered issues, and we have created a PLC to study how changing to a standards-based grading structure would improve the feedback loop we share with our students.

As principal, I ask that the PLCs have a core meeting structure that holds them accountable to produce actions and needed information, and I meet with the PLCs and review their meeting minutes to ensure that resources are being given where they are most needed. This support serves to magnify the positive aspects of teacher collaboration and to help ensure that PLC meetings remain positive, solution-centered opportunities for teachers to work together to make our school more effective and meaningful for all of our students.

Family Counseling

Another major benefit we see coming from our PLC work is that the small, nagging issues that often accumulate as we work together are dealt with in an immediate fashion. Teachers will bring their concerns to the table at our weekly/monthly PLC meetings and are able to build and maintain honest, clear and supportive relationships with their colleagues through dialogue. I sometimes find myself in the role of patriarch/family counselor, helping teachers to navigate the personal and professional relationships that they have to forge with their peers and colleagues, all the while working to encourage teachers and staff so that the school can maintain a positive, forward-looking, student-centered culture. Getting teachers to work together on behalf of their students—the thing that truly matters to them—is not only the key to effective practice, but to a healthy, positive school climate that impacts everything we do for students.

What does your school do to support teacher collaboration? Does your work with faculty and staff emphasize the importance of their work together for the benefit of students and school culture? What is one thing you could do to enhance the way your teachers work with each other?

Duane Kline is in his 31st year as a teacher and school leader. He is the proud principal of Owen County High School in Owenton, KY, and the Kentucky Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Anne’s husband and dad to Hannah and Aaron. 

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