A Positive School Culture is a Way of Being

18 elements to keep in the forefront to create a strong, sustained, celebrated school culture

Building and sustaining a positive school culture is the all-encompassing factor of a successful school. It is not a system. It is not a program. It is a way of being. And even when putting time, money, and energy into it, it can be elusive. For a positive school culture to exist, each person in the school community has an essential role. First and foremost, it is modeled with the principal’s energy, commitment, and integrity. The staff, students, and parents must understand their part and enjoy their role.

It seems simple to state that a positive school culture must exist before any other powerful work can take place. While so very true, accomplishing that culture requires strategic leadership and an unfaltering commitment. Having an entire school system committed to the same goals and moving in the same direction is no small feat. And even when the school culture is positive, it does not magically stay that way. Maintaining it requires consistent monitoring and nurturing as human dynamics are constantly shifting in a school. Our school has spent years keeping school culture at the forefront of decisions. We are incredibly proud of the results of our efforts and know that creating positive school culture is a continual work in progress.

There are many books on how to create a positive school culture. I find that specific examples of how other middle schools have accomplished a goal can be quite helpful. My goal is that by sharing our journey and success, others may find something that helps along the way.

Our grades 6-8 middle school has a dynamic culture in which all are extremely proud of who we are, and we work hard to keep it strong. Visitors to our school notice our culture and are incredibly impressed with what they see and experience. Below are the significant elements to which we accredit our success in the order in which we have focused and created specific traditions and behaviors.

1. Define it and talk about it

A school needs to know what a positive culture looks like and feels like for them. It’s different for every building. It must be defined, and this is often done in the form of a vision statement of behaviors. However you define it, use your school language, live by it, and talk about it all the time. This is where we started. These conversations helped lead us in the direction we knew we needed to go.

2. Honesty

You must have honest conversations about the school culture on a regular basis. When we began, it was difficult for everyone to share their perspectives and for some truths to be put in the room. By committing to it, modeling it, seeking input, and creating structures for people to share, honest conversations were possible. It took time and effort and is something we still work on. Honesty only comes with trust, and trust is built and maintained through daily actions.

3. Be overt and intentional

School culture agreements must be overtly and intentionally modeled and championed every day by every adult in the building. We always discuss whether we are modeling that which we expect of our students.

4. School pride

Any thriving culture is centered on pride. This is not an arrogant, judgmental pride, but a pride in hard work, team effort, and the success that comes with it. It also comes through infusing the school culture and language through everything. We are the Pirates. For everything we do, we attach pirate language. For instance, our overall behavioral expectations are the RRRs. Our physical locations have pirate place names, and our grade level teams are named with pirate terminology.

5. Have fun

It is essential to find the balance between hard work and fun. Time must be found and dedicated to enjoying one another in the school day and allowing adolescents and adults to just be silly. One way we accomplish this is to have quarterly assemblies. There are some celebrations and recognitions at these assemblies, but they primarily exist to just have fun for 40 minutes at the end of each quarter. They are loud and raucous with random games led by our student leadership class, and it is exactly what middle school students need and love. Two other examples of unabashedly non-academic fun are our student vs. staff volleyball and basketball games and our teacher dunk tank on the last day of school.

6. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate

We constantly look for anything and everything to celebrate. We also purposely create things to celebrate if we feel a niche needs to be filled. We are an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program (IBMYP) school, which has 10 learner profiles. Each month we recognize students who embody the learner profiles. We have a VIP award for each assembly to recognize a student who is always working hard but does not necessarily get recognized for their efforts. That student gets to sit in a bean bag chair and have pizza with a friend during the assembly. We give students fake money called Pirate Loot for any and all expected and awesome behavior. They then spend their loot at our weekly Crow’s Nest Store (note the pirate lingo). These are just a few examples. There are so many more, and there can never be enough.

7. Website and social media

We post everything on Facebook and Instagram. We take pictures all the time to showcase our students. Our website is obsessively accurate and up to date, events are posted on social media, and a comprehensive weekly email is sent so parents never get frustrated with a lack of information.

8. Showcase students and teachers

We have pictures all over the building showcasing students and staff living our mission and vision. By seeing themselves showcased, students and teachers know they are recognized and appreciated.

9. Parent engagement

Parents are integral to a positive school culture. They are your partners and your champions. Involve them in every possible way. Parent involvement looks very different in middle school than in elementary school, and as we all know, adolescents are notorious for sending very clear messages to their parents that they are not welcome within a mile radius of them. We have a flyer explaining every possible way to be involved from pouring soda at a dance, to serving on committees, to bringing food for teachers during conferences. Our parents are appreciated and involved. Our teachers communicate with parents with ease, and we involve them in every situation with their child.

10. Teacher leadership

There absolutely must be teacher leaders who are involved in making important school decisions and providing honest input to administration. Some people will never be comfortable speaking their truth directly to their school administrators. Having teacher representatives to talk to and who bring their perspective to administrators is the best way to ensure all voices are heard. Spending time to build and appreciate this teacher leadership team is essential. They are the captains of your team. They are not the coaches; the administrators are the coaches. The captains lead the team while they are simultaneously a part of the team. This is not an easy role for many teachers and takes courage to serve. Understand their role and support them as they stay master teachers while leading their peers.

11. Student-led conferences

Moving to student-led conferences was one of the best decisions we have made. Our students gather evidence and reflect on their learning in their advisory class on a conference form prior to the conference. On conference night they must speak to their progress with their parents and their teachers. They are no longer an absent or passive participant. The student is now the center of the discussion. Through the structure of conference preparation school culture is consistently reinforced.

12. Advisory

We have grade level advisory twice weekly for 40 minutes. The first three weeks of school, we have school-wide lessons on expectations and culture. We call this Pirate Camp. Some of the lessons are as simple as going through the student handbook together. Advisory is used through the year for school-wide expectations and celebrations. We also do activities such as a school-wide book read in which every student in the building reads the same book—often read aloud by the advisory teacher—and then completes an activity at the end.

13. Visual messaging

Put the most important messaging in your hallways and in every classroom. We have five different school created posters with our culture language throughout the building, and it is consistently referenced in everything we do.

14. Make the students your leaders

Any time and any way students can do something, have them do it. But be sure to train them, tell them the expectations, make sure they know you believe they can rise to any challenge, and then overly appreciate them. A personalized badge, pizza, and ice cream go a long way. Our students plan the assemblies, create our Fall Carnival Haunted House, are trained tour guides for any visitors and prospective families, work in the Crow’s Nest, and monitor halls, just to name a few.

15. Social/emotional program

Last year we implemented a social/emotional program. We chose what we felt worked for our school culture. We spent a year as a staff to make this decision because if all the teachers do not believe in it, it will fail. We chose a program that has weekly class meetings facilitated by the advisory teacher. We hold these class meetings first thing in the morning every Monday. The grade level teachers choose the topics for each week and then talk with each other in team meetings about how to present the lesson. These weekly meetings and the aligned school messaging have significantly reduced “mean” behavior and bullying in our school. When mean behavior or bullying does occur, the students know how to address the situation and can process through it with clarity. Additionally, every adult in the building is committed to addressing all mean behavior promptly and consistently. Instances of mean behavior and bullying are followed with a phone call home and referral to administration based on the level of severity.

16. Fight song

Our school did not have a fight song. Every school needs something to loudly sing or yell in unison. In collaboration with a parent alumni and students, a fight song was created and recorded. This year students will learn and sing it in assemblies then hopefully at events.

17. Motto

A brief motto that sums up a school culture is powerful. We spent months determining something that stated who we are. We landed on one word—INVICTUS!—and are now using it throughout everything we do. It means something when it is said, and the school community has rallied around it.

18. Intentionally connect students

This fall our teacher leadership team came up with a powerful idea to connect our eighth graders with our sixth graders. They will have a partner they will connect with through specific activities in advisory through the year. This is in addition to the established mentoring program that already exists to transition sixth graders to middle school. Creating and sustaining a positive school culture must always be at the forefront of decisions, and schools must look for ways to make it even better. In all things, school leaders must hold themselves to a higher standard. They must model hopes, dreams, and expectations. It is also the leader’s role to have honest and thoughtful discussions when expectations are not met, including when it is themselves.

Our intentional and persistent focus on school culture has created positive results as seen in student and parent survey data and in our annual state assessment scores. It has taken several years to create what we have today, and there is still room for growth. We did it by first evaluating our current state and then planning ahead, intentionally taking it step by step through the years. It has been challenging, it has been fun, and most importantly, it has been rewarding for our students.