Cultivating a Thriving School Culture: Strategies for Fostering Positivity

Every leader understands the power of positive culture. When staff across a school or group of schools feel truly valued, empowered and part of an effective team, the positive impact is felt across every aspect of the organisation, not least enhanced teaching and student outcomes. However, maintaining culture as a galvanising force requires planning and sustained effort. 

As your organisation evolves, how can you ensure essential communication reaches every corner? How do you maintain trust when staff feel disconnected from leadership? And perhaps most crucially, how do you nurture individual passion and drive when people start to feel disconnected from the larger machine?

Cultivating a positive culture in a school system requires planning and commitment. Neglect this, and you may soon see the cracks appearing in the form of dampened morale, increased turnover, and a loss of that magic that inspires students and staff alike. Whilst strategy is important, the consequences of culture neglect could derail even the grandest strategic plans. As the well-known quote from management consultant and writer Peter Drucker reminds us…

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Peter Drucker

So what are the key levers for cultivating positivity throughout your entire organisation? While no two schools are identical, evidence points to several core tenets.

Shared Vision and Trust-Building

Behind every sustainable positive culture lies an inspiring, clearly-articulated vision that stakeholders have authentically bought into. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella drove a remarkable turnaround by galvanising the company around a revised mission and ethos emphasising empathy, collaboration and continual learning. For schools, that shared vision could rally around core values like nurturing potential, academic excellence, inclusion, kindness and ambition. 

However, even the most well-thought-out vision can feel hollow without the foundation of trust across all levels. Research shows organisational trust correlates strongly with higher job satisfaction, knowledge sharing, and commitment to goals. Compared with people at low-trust organisations, people at high-trust organisations report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, and 40% less burnout (Zak, 2017).

Leaders would be wise to heed the words of Paul Santagata, Head of Data Transformation and Analytics at Google, when he says…

“There’s no team without trust.” 

Paul Santagata

Empowering Leadership and Open Communication  

Through open communication, visible leadership and a commitment to following through, school leaders can and must continually reinforce their commitment to the vision, the culture and the wider staff. While developing an overarching vision usually falls to senior leaders, fostering a positive culture requires empowering others to take ownership too. School cultures thrive when principals, department heads and teacher leaders all model effective two-way communication and accountability within their spheres of influence. Distributed leadership like this encourages the flow of communication in all directions.

At the same time, those tasked with driving cultural initiatives must create channels for open dialogue and keep a consistent pulse on staff feeling. Regular surveys, forums for open sharing, and leaders who prioritise listening over talking, all help gauge when positivity may be waning and provide avenues for staff to have a voice. 

The importance of listening to colleagues and valuing their thoughts is highlighted by Rachael Wilding, Director of Edsidera and Director of EIGHTClouds Education, who highlights the potential benefits and believes that…

Creating a sense of belonging is a critical part of a successful international school culture. When staff feel respected, listened to, supported, challenged and involved, they are more likely to be motivated, proactive and settle in to be long-standing members of a school community.”

Rachael Wilding

Psychological Safety and Setting High-Performance Standards

Fostering high-performing, highly effective teams hinges on two critical elements: cultivating a sense of psychological safety and setting high-performance standards. 

Google’s extensive two-year study on team dynamics revealed that psychological safety 鈥 the belief that one can take moderate risks or make mistakes without fear of punishment or repercussions 鈥 lays the bedrock for an effective team. When employees feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally, or challenging the status quo without fear of negative consequences, organisations are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock potential, and adapt well to change. A sentiment shared by Craig Kyllonen, School Principal at West Wendover High School, Nevada, who tells us…

Embracing diversity and fostering inclusivity creates a sense of belonging for all, promoting collaboration and respect.”

Craig Kyllonen

Leaders have the most influence when it comes to making team members feel safe. Yet, many managers lack an understanding of how to create a psychologically safe workplace. A survey by McKinsey & Company (McKinsey and Co., 2021) found that only 26% of business leaders often demonstrate the positive traits necessary to promote psychological safety. 

John Nicholls, Director of Education at Globeducate, suggests…

“A kind and respectful leadership team who will support you whilst also insisting on high-quality work is essential.”

John Nicholls

…highlighting the importance of leaders demonstrating supportive, consultative behaviours before they begin to challenge their teams. Individuals and teams need clarity around aspirational performance goals and be given the training, coaching and support required to meet those benchmarks.

With mounting evidence that employee attrition rates are on the rise (Diliberti, 2023), leaders cannot afford to neglect fostering psychologically safe environments oriented around employee wellbeing, purposeful work and continuous growth. The combination of a supportive culture alongside high standards has never been more important for effective team performance.

Wellbeing

Fostering a positive school culture requires a holistic approach to wellbeing that addresses structural and philosophical aspects. As John Nicholls emphasises…

Schools need to have a structural and philosophical approach to wellbeing. From my time running a wellbeing programme, and my observations since, the biggest influences structurally on wellbeing are workload, staff having a feeling of control over the work they do, clear communication, and systems & processes that promote transparency, enforce equity and robustly address disrespectful behaviour.”  

John Nicholls

Furthermore, cultivating supportive relationships and prioritising mental health awareness are critical components. Craig Kyllonen explains that…

Strong bonds between students, teachers, and staff nurture a positive environment where individuals feel valued and motivated鈥 and 鈥prioritising mental health awareness and creating a safe, nurturing atmosphere supports the holistic development of students and staff.”

Craig Kyllonen

Professional Growth and A Culture of Continuous Improvement

Often underestimated, one of the surest safeguards against organisational negativity lies in nurturing an environment oriented towards growth, development and constructive feedback. A point echoed by Craig Kyllonen, who says…

“Encouraging reflection, feedback, and adaptation fosters a culture of lifelong learning and growth among students and staff.

Craig Kyllonen

Schools which choose to invest in robust professional development and coaching initiatives signal a commitment to empowering staff, while also improving overall capabilities and efficacy. It’s a rising tide that lifts all ships. Schools and school groups that allocate a higher proportion of their budget to CPD, unsurprisingly, boast exceptional outcomes and engagement.  

How ALTA Can Help

While the principles behind positive cultures ring true across many organisations, schools face a unique set of challenges and complexities in bringing them to life. When faced with shifting policies, enhancing teaching and learning outcomes, high staff turnover, and engaging diverse stakeholders, context-driven support and guidance can prove invaluable. That’s why ALTA’s mission centres around partnering with schools to support systemic and sustainable improvement from the inside out. We collaborate with leadership to design bespoke programmes encompassing strategies to support leaders, high-impact CPD, cultural revitalisation, and more.

If fostering a thriving, positive culture that empowers your pupils, staff and overall organisation is one of your priorities, or if you are interested in improving teaching and learning, we’d welcome the opportunity to explore how we can work together. Visit us at www.alta-education.com or drop us a line at support@alta-education.com to learn more.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, large school organisations boil down to human interactions. By taking intentional steps to build and maintain a positive culture, through a shared vision, inclusive leadership, open communication and a climate of low threat but high challenge, we pave the way for students and staff alike to flourish. Whilst challenging, the payoff in boosted commitment, capability and impact make it a wise investment for your school’s future.

References

McKinsey & Company (2021) ‘Psychological Safety at Work [Survey report]’. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development (Accessed: 18 April 2024).

Zak, P.J. (2017) ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’, Harvard Business Review, 95(1), pp.84-90. Available at: https://corryrobertson.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/The-Neuroscience-of-Trust-by-Paul-J-Zak.pdf (Accessed: 18th April 2024)

Diliberti, M.K. and Schwartz, H.L. (2023) Educator Turnover Has Markedly Increased, but Districts Have Taken Actions to Boost Teacher Ranks: Selected Findings from the Sixth American School District Panel Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Available at: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA956-14.html (Accessed: 18 April 2024).

Special Thanks

We owe a debt of thanks to our contributors whose willingness to freely share their experience and wisdom highlights the very leadership traits that lead to a successful school culture. 

Craig Kyllonen is School Principal @ West Wendover High School, Nevada

John Nicholls is Director of Education at Globeducate

Rachael Wilding is Director of Edsidera and Director of EIGHTClouds Education



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *