School culture may seem like an intangible, amorphous concept, yet it affects everything that happens in your school every day. It can determine whether or not a student picks up litter, returns a library book on time, or chooses fast food instead of the school's salad bar. It influences whether or not a student prepares for an upcoming biology quiz, joins an extracurricular organization, or attends an extra support session after school. A school's culture may appear too ubiquitous to define clearly, too pervasive to grasp fully, and too complex to evaluate, but it's too important to ignore.
A school's culture is a combination of countless attributes that create the school's "experience." It is largely defined by what is important to the student body. It encompasses their principles, outlook, and behaviors. It includes the traditions of the school, what and how the school celebrates, and what is accepted by the majority as the norm. It influences all aspects of student life within the school community, including the character of individual students as well as the social and academic components of school life.
All too often, school culture is left to develop on its own. The students determine among themselves what's important and what's not. School rules affect it, but culture can also be purposefully crafted, influenced, and improved upon through the efforts of staff members.
If your school culture needs improvement, there are certain steps you should take. Changing the culture of a school requires a sustained effort. After identifying areas for improvement, teachers must find ways to influence thought patterns, decision making, and habits by creating or strengthening choices for students to make. They must repeatedly put positive choices before students; eventually students will begin to embrace these new ideas, and the culture of the school will evolve.
In an effort to create more positive, helpful, and cooperative students, schools can increase opportunities for students to serve others. Try adding community service opportunities (or even requirements) to certain classes, programs, or athletic activities. You could organize a blood drive during the school day, hold a food and clothing drive for local families in need, or host a weeklong awareness event for a deserving nonprofit organization.
There are also ways to create a kinder culture. Create a student group focused on tolerance. Develop a Random Acts of Kindness Week. Organize a "Mix It Up Day" to encourage students to sit with new people at lunch. Celebrate the diversity found within your school through displays of fashion, music, art, or dance. Add elements of fun or humor to school assemblies to lighten the mood and put smiles on faces. You could even host a student-teacher talent show. Remind students and staff that you're all in this together, so you should enjoy one another's company!
You can also influence academic attitudes and habits to improve the school's culture. Successful students can mentor freshmen that need extra support during a weekly check-in. Host a study party before midterms where students can prepare for exams in a relaxed but productive atmosphere, or organize a workshop to teach kids effective note-taking and organizational skills. Develop a system of interventions that can become part of the natural progression of the school day for students who require extra assistance. Coaches can create team study halls to stress the point that academics come first. You can also institute recognition systems that celebrate students who are improving as well as the best-performing students.
School culture can encourage or inhibit active students; it can make a student feel welcome or intimidated; and it can encourage or quash academic motivation. As teachers, we have the opportunity to foster positive changes to the everyday experience in our schools. Investing time in improving school culture is worth the effort.
Brad Kuntz teaches Spanish and environmental leadership at Gladstone High School in Gladstone, Ore., and is a 2011 winner of ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award.