Positive School Culture

By Dr. Karen Johnson


Dr. Johnson is a Jackson, Mississippi resident, high school teacher, book lover and fan of all things Dr. Who.  She has worked in education for twenty years, we applaud her dedication!

Many business principles are built on making sure their customers have a positive experience. Customer service training, a pleasant atmosphere, and a quality product all play a role in how customers perceive their experience in a business. In education, however, this model is sometimes lacking. What so many people fail to realize is that a positive school culture goes a long way in affecting the achievement of the school.

As a 20-year veteran, I have worked in three different high schools and believe me, school culture matters! It affects the morale of the employees, the motivation of the students and even the perceptions the parents and community have of the school as a whole. In my negative experience, it became a chore to report to work. It's hard to be motivational for students when you feel that administration is blaming you for all the ills of the school and provide no support. As a result, teachers are barely engaged with the school itself, instead they just come to work and leaving at the end of the day.

The students are very perceptive and it shows in their behavior and achievement. We had conversations about the feeling that the people in charge have given up on them or why some teachers don't make an effort to teach them. They even noticed how some teachers seem to be disregarded by administration and it made them angry because these were the teachers they felt was trying to help them. It was very disheartening to hear the negative thoughts perpetuated by the parents and the local media, who don’t realize these thoughts are taken to heart by the students.

Without a top down change, the atmosphere of the school is only going to get more oppressive.  Part of the issue stems from the viewpoint of the school leaders.  Many leaders, especially in urban schools, tend to view students as “problems”, not people and base their approach on stemming the “bad behavior” and removing the “bad kids” from the environment.   It also oppresses the teachers who are trying to make a difference in students’ lives

With my positive school culture experience, it was like a breath of fresh air. The feeling of being valued as a professional and as a subject matter expert was exciting. It makes you want to do more because you want to bring your very best to your classroom and your school.  Administration plays a huge role in this culture because they respect their teachers and treat them as change agents, not competition.

The students also buy into the positive culture.  They grow because their voices are being heard and valued.  They thrive off the positive reinforcement for behavior or academic achievements.  They strive to bring community pride and recognition to the school because it makes them feel good.  It also makes them feel as they are a part of the school community.  This “feel good” attitude is reflected in test scores, academic achievements, and school pride. 

Both staff and students also feed off the feelings of higher morale.  There are positive relationships between the students and the teachers.  Are there never behavior problems?  Of course, there are, but there are also fewer referred discipline issues because teachers are often able to handle more of them on their own because of the relationships that have been built between the teachers and the students. 

Positive school culture is always a work in progress.  Administrators do not change overnight and neither do teachers.  For those who have been in education for a while, the biggest change comes from forgetting what you were taught regarding student discipline and being willing to incorporate new ideas and methods.  While there are many programs out there designed to promote positive school culture, most administrators will come to realize there is no one approach that will work.  Methods have to be cultivated to fit the needs of the students. 

It is also important to involve parents in the process.  Involving parents in implementation of the positive school culture benefits the school and the students.  Parents can help their child take ownership in the school community as well as assist in fostering community pride in the school.  It also helps reduce discipline issues because parents are aware of the school expectations and many parents will ensure their child is in line with those expectations. 

Positive school culture ensures that academic achievement has a place to grow.  A positive school culture allows the focus to be on developing scholars instead of constantly deriving ways to enforce discipline.  As academic achievement increases, discipline issues decreases and growth continues.  In turn, it develops a school where teachers and students thrive and the community supports it.  It becomes a win/win for all involved.