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Is Your School's Culture
Toxic or Positive?


"School culture is the set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the 'persona' of the school," says Dr. Kent D. Peterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Education World talked with Peterson about the differences between positive and negative school cultures and how administrators and teachers can create a positive culture in their schools. Included: Tips for creating a positive school culture.

"The culture of a school consists primarily of the underlying norm values and beliefs that teachers and administrators hold about teaching and learning," according to Dr. Kent D. Peterson. That culture is also composed of "traditions and ceremonies schools hold to build community and reinforce their values," says Peterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership.

Every school has underlying assumptions about what staff members will discuss at meetings, which teaching techniques work well, how amenable the staff is to change, and how critical staff development is, adds Peterson. That core set of beliefs underlies the school's overall culture.

Positive or Negative?

In a school with a positive culture, Peterson says, "There's an informal network of heroes and heroines and an informal grapevine that passes along information about what's going on in the school ... [A] set of values that supports professional development of teachers, a sense of responsibility for student learning, and a positive, caring atmosphere" exist.

On the other hand, in a toxic school environment, "teacher relations are often conflictual, the staff doesn't believe in the ability of the students to succeed, and a generally negative attitude" prevails, notes Peterson.

Staff and administrators in a positive school culture believe they have the ability to achieve their ambitions. Their counterparts operating in a negative school environment lack faith in the possibility of realizing their visions.

School culture has a profound effect on staff development. "It affects attitudes toward spending time to improve instruction, motivation to attend workshops, and the [activities] people choose to participate in," Peterson says.

Extensive Resources Not Need for Positivity to Bloom 

In the article Positive or Negative? (Journal of Staff Development, Summer 2002), Peterson writes about the exemplary school culture at Ganado (Arizona) Primary School. Located in one of the poorest counties in the United States, the school has not always boasted a vibrant professional community. "Over time," Peterson wrote, "Sigmund Boloz, the principal, and his staff developed a strong, professional culture that supports staff and student learning."

Toxic or Positive?

Which term describes your school's culture?

A toxic school culture
* blames students for lack of progress
* discourages collaboration
* breeds hostility among staff.

A positive school culture
* celebrates successes
* emphasizes accomplishment and collaboration
* fosters a commitment to staff and student learning.

In that article, Peterson described a school culture in which staff, students, principal, and community members are all seen as learners. All teachers have been trained in a reading intervention program called CLIP (Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project). Teachers are supported in their use of the program and are invited to regular "curriculum conversations" to discuss new ideas and share experiences.

At Ganado, "The presence of a staff professional library symbolically communicates the importance of learning," Peterson continued. "The school has amassed 4,000 professional books and 400 videotapes on effective teaching and other professional issues." In addition, the school hosts an academy for parents each year to help enhance parenting abilities.

"Staff members feel responsible for improving their own skills and knowledge to help students learn," concluded Peterson. "They regularly recount stories of successfully using new ideas. The staff expects and encourages collaboration and sharing. In short, professional learning is valued in the culture."

Changing a Toxic Culture

According to Peterson, schools with a negative, or toxic, culture

  • lack a clear sense of purpose
  • have norms that reinforce inertia
  • blame students for lack of progress
  • discourage collaboration
  • often have actively hostile relations among staff.

In fighting such a negative culture, Peterson tells Education World, "to begin with, the staff must assess the underlying norms and values of the culture and then as a group activity, work to change them to have a more positive, supportive culture."

What Can Administrators Do?

Principals need to "read the school," Peterson suggests. They must talk to storytellers on the staff to discern what kind of history the school has. Staff and administrators need to examine what they have learned about the school culture, and then they must ask two questions:

  • What aspects of the culture are positive and should be reinforced?
  • What aspects of the culture are negative and harmful and should be changed?

In "Positive or Negative?" Peterson shared ways in which principals and staff leaders can nurture the school culture's positive aspects. They include the following:

  • Celebrate successes in staff meetings and ceremonies.
  • Tell stories of accomplishment and collaboration whenever there's an opportunity.
  • Use clear, shared language created during professional development to foster a commitment to staff and student learning.

When administrators and staff collaborate in a strong push to foster an environment in which learning blooms, Peterson concluded, they will decrease such negatives as student misbehavior and faculty grousing and create an overall positive school culture with a flourishing staff and students.

Want to Learn More?

Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership
A brief summary of this book, says authors Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson, shows how school leaders can use the power of school culture to create a vibrant, cooperative spirit and a school "persona."

Shaping School Culture Fieldbook
By Terrence E. Deal and Kent D. Peterson (Jossey-Bass), this book provides solid methods, questions to contemplate, and group activities for a school's staff to use in assessing and changing its culture.