Positive School Culture: What Matters the Most in K-12 Education

Author: Shelly Hollis
October 2, 2015

positive school culture

Positive school culture is just as important as a curriculum. School culture is the environment in which the students are learning and interacting with other students, teachers, and lessons during any given day. So, how does your school’s culture make you feel? How do you feel as you pull into your school’s parking lot? Are you excited and ready to start the day, or do you have a sense of dread flood over you? Hopefully, you are the former but if the latter applies to you it might be time to ask yourself why you feel that way. More often than not, the answer is school culture.


What is School Culture?



“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”- Peter Drucker

Positive school culture is more than a curriculum or doing a few team-building activities as a staff. Culture goes a lot deeper into the perspectives staff members have of themselves, of each other, and of the students.

In the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Lexicon of Learning, school culture is defined as “The sum of the values, cultures, safety practices, and organizational structures within a school that cause it to function and react in particular ways.”1

Throughout my years in education, I’ve seen and worked with the staff at hundreds of schools. It usually does not take long to “feel” the underlying culture and values of a school. Most of the time I sense respect, collegiality, and even love.

However, there have been times when I sense that people are disgruntled and that there are, perhaps, underlying adversarial relationships.

If relationships among the adults in a school building are in disrepair, the negativity can go viral quickly!

The intangible culture of a school influence every staff member and every student on campus. Roland Barth, author of Improving Schools from Within, said the following in regard to the importance of relationships among adults in schools:

“The nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.”

What can be done to improve relationships among adults to help the school climate be welcoming and familial?


Positive School Culture


positive school culture


I asked a few of my colleagues to share some of the creative ways they have seen schools promote healthy relationships among the staff and a positive school culture. Here is a sampling of what they shared:

  • Friendships are forged over lunch. Have special potlucks or bring in food on occasion, to build relationships. One of my colleagues said she used to don an apron and push a coffee cart of Danishes around to her teachers for a coffee break.
  • Create structures allowing time for teachers to discuss the craft of teaching (like PLTs, PLCs). Go a step further and encourage staff members to observe each other. This will create a lot of synergy around best instructional practices.
  • Set up a process to promote emotional bank account deposits among the staff. For example, a simple “shout out” message board where people can pin up complimentary or encouraging notes to each other. You could also create a display of small buckets for each staff member (don’t forget your lunchroom employees, bus drivers, support staff, etc…) where notes or candy can be deposited.
  • A healthy school culture, including positive relationships among school staff, is not always automatic. It requires intentional planning by administration and leadership teams. A shift in school culture needs to be an inside-out process that starts with the adults having a change in perspective that is emulated in their relationships with each other and their students. Specific strategies like these can help, but they will falter if there is not a genuine desire for improving your school from within.

After all…Culture. Always. Wins.



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