Generally defined as "the way we do things around here," culture is the underground system of norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that have built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges.

The school leader recognizes that effectively examining school culture is a long term process that involves observation, identification and reflection. Such examination is followed by collaboration, action, implementation, and assessment.

  • What makes school culture the foundation for learning?
  • How does school culture influence the way people think, feel and act?
  • What makes culture the key determinant of staff focus, commitment, motivation and productivity?
  • How does the school’s mission impact school culture

The foundation of any highly effective school is the quality of the culture. High performing schools have teachers who work collaboratively with the administrators to intentionally shape a cohesive and positive culture within the school. They work with colleagues to develop consistent and pervasive practices that communicate high expectations for all students. They are dedicated to the school’s mission, exhibit behaviors that align with the school’s core beliefs and help to create an environment of excellence on behalf of the students they serve.

“Culture is a powerful web of rituals and traditions, norms, and values that affects every corner of school life” (Peterson and Deal, 2002). What are the elements?

Positive Elements:

  • Leadership is distributed and displayed through a collaborative process.
  • School mission is student centered and focused on learning.
  • History and stories of success are well-known.
  • Actions, activities and ceremonies reinforce the school mission.
  • A positive focus is maintained on improving professional practices.
  • All stakeholders accept responsibility for student learning.
  • Environment expresses joy and pride.
  • A shared sense of respect and caring for everyone benefits all.

Negative Elements:

  • Lack of positive leadership.
  • Lack of shared purpose and mission.
  • Viewing past as story of defeat and failure.
  • Negative language and behaviors are the norm and not challenged.
  • Communication is generally fragmented and negative.
  • Positive examples are generally not recognized or rewarded.
  • Poor attendance and participation by all stakeholders.
  • Few positive traditions

The West Virginia Department of Education has defined standards for principals that apply to culture as:

Standard I - Develops and Supports a Learning Mission

A contemporary principal has an obligation to develop and support a mission for his/her school.  The mission should be developed collaboratively by all stakeholders.  The mission should address learning for all and develop the core content with 21st century skills for conceptual understanding, and the ability to effectively use information in context.  It is important for the school’s mission to be aligned with the county and state so that we are all headed in the same direction.  The mission should be mindful of the urgency for students to compete in a global economy with social and political issues.  A school's mission must also be characterized by different kinds of learning experiences so that the "digital natives" are prepared for the future.  Supporting the mission through a balanced assessment system will give accountability to the mission.

Standard III - Builds and Sustains a Learning-Centered Culture

The contemporary principal establishes the vision and mission conducive to successful acquisition of 21st century skills for all of his/her students.  The principal communicates strong beliefs regarding best practices and research based initiatives in preparing all students for the global community.  The principal empowers teacher leaders, encourages creativity and innovation dedicated to rigor and relevance for all learners. 

Culture is a school-wide, agreed upon, and shared mission that unites the staff and guides actions, policies and procedures throughout the school.

The Culture Typology Activity was developed for use by teachers and principals as a method to help schools and school leaders:

  • identify the general type of culture present in a school,
  • reflect upon the impact of that type of culture on student success, and
  •  stimulate the discussion and the design of strategies to develop and maintain a more collaborative culture. 
  • Locate two or three instruments that measure school culture, compare their effectiveness and choose one to administer.
  • Identify and list the aspects of your school that contribute to a positive culture.
  • Identify and list the aspects of your school that contribute to a negative culture.
  • Have your stakeholders complete the same activity.  Collaboratively compare results.
  • Analyze the results to create a school-wide set of core beliefs and to develop a mission statement with your stakeholders.
  • Create and implement activities that reinforce the core beliefs and mission statement.
  • Repeat the administration of your instrument at the end of the school year to measure growth and progress in your school culture.
  • What characteristics of positive school culture does your school exhibit?
  • What behaviors do you model that contribute to a positive culture in your school?
  • Does the culture in your school lend itself to the model of a professional learning community?


School of Improvement