Thursday, May 19, 2016

Professional Communities and School Culture

School culture is a little like the proverbial iceberg (Stoll, 1998) - what you see on the surface is not necessarily representative of the whole story.  Often what lies beneath is a complicated network of emotions, traditions, rituals, values and relationships that can be as tricky to navigate as the London underground system!  It is both influential (Hongboontri, C., & Keawkhong, N, 2014) on and influenced (Stoll, 1998) by, the members of the community it pertains to.  The iceberg model is by no means an original thought on my part (much to my disappointment) but it is a useful metaphor to think of in regards to school culture.

Firstly lets look at what culture is.  In Mark Wilsons TedX talk, he defines culture as 'beliefs and priorities that drive the thoughts and actions of the school' - and that the principal is the keeper of those thoughts and beliefs.    He then went on to outline how culture was developed and fostered at his school.  It gave me pause to reflect on what that might look like at our place, in particular the things that are under the iceberg of culture, and how pivital my role as principal is as 'keeper of thoughts and beliefs"

What is our Culture?

I have been reflecting on this, and thinking about how school climate and culture interrelate.  The school climate is defined as what is currently happening, and it is something that is more immediate.  It can be described as the schools 'attitude' Gruenert, 2008).  For example, our teachers are busy working on formulating mid year reporting, so there is a feel of urgency in the air.  We also have a school trip to the Stardome observatory coming up which is linked to the terms learning, which has a positive impact on student engagement levels and there is a 'buzz' about the place.  The weather has also been a little miserable earlier in the week, and that has had an impact on our students as they have been stuck inside during break times.   These things are the current conditions and for the most part, can change on any given day or week.  How we manage them is more about our school culture.  

School culture is about the deeper, underlying things that we do as a school community.  It has been described as a schools 'personality' (Gruenert, 2008).  For us, it is our shared vision, what we value and believe and how we bring these things to life.  Most visitors to our place comment on our schools personality - how warm, inviting and family like it is.  Obviously climate may shape that some days!  

At our place, we have 3 Bold Steps that we formulated together some time ago as a community to take us from what was our then current reality to a desired reality of what we wanted for our school and our community.  What sits at the heart of these steps is an emphasis on improving teaching and learning for our students in order for them to be successful now and in the future.  How we bring them to life is our culture. 

Our 3 Bold Steps are:

1. Empower students, so that students can make decisions, design their learning and unlock and follow their passions.

2. Engage the community, so that parents and Whanau are actively involved in our school, in partnership with staff students and the community.  

3. Grow our staff, so that teachers and support staff are supported to develop and grow as professionals.  

To unpack each of those steps in any detail would entail a small thesis, suffice to say that each of these steps has a huge impact on how we operate as a school.  It forms the basis of our self review and when we look at initiatives we ask 'In what ways will this improve things for our students, our staff or our community?'.   One of the vehicles we use to facilitate ongoing improvement is educational coaching.  Coaching at our place has been a powerful tool that helps to unlock the potential of our staff, and because it is a personalised pathway for improvement, it assists in developing a culture of reflection, solution finding and ownership.  

How do I contribute to it?

As the leader, sometimes I am the driver and sometimes I am the passenger.  At our place, we talk about the 'F' word a lot.  The 'F' word I refer to is FUN.  For students, schools should be a place they want to come each day, a place that encourages, inspires, grows and engages them.  This should be no different for the staff.  One of the best ways I can contribute to the climate and culture at our place is to help the team create the school that brings them here each day.   Sometimes I need to get out of the way to let others do just that.  We may not always get it right, but part of our culture here is to ask 'what happened, how can we learn from it, and how might we improve it?' and 'what next?'.   

A key contribution I make is to the Professional capital of our school.  Professional capital arises from the three components of Human, Social and Decisional capital and how they interact with each other (Fullan, 2014).  How I build up, develop and grow our human resources, support and facilitate our social interactions and provide opportunities for people to have ownership and agency through increased decision making is the most effective way for me to contribute to our school culture.  You can read about more about this in my blog post "Building Capital to Build Capacity" which also provides questions for the reader to reflect on and use, in relation to improving these aspects within their own school.

What are the current issues? How will we respond to them?

Right now there are numerous issues that impact on a school, and our school is no different.  Internally, we have had a number of new staff recently, which impacts on our climate - fortunately it has had a very positive impact and for us now, it is important that we ensure all the 'wonderfulness' that comes from new ideas is captured and used to help shape the next part of our journey.  To do that it is good to understand how we got to where we are, and that we welcome the influence of our new people to help us shape the next steps.  Sometimes this takes time, as they uncover parts of our hidden iceberg, however a good induction process can speed that up!  

Externally, Government policy will always have a part to play in influencing school culture, if you allow it to.  As self governed schools, we choose how we respond.  If your school has an open, solutions focussed culture then you will find a work around and a way to implement something that is contrary to your beliefs.  If, however, the culture is one of distrust and suspicion, then traction forward in a positive way will be difficult.  

The iceberg that is school culture is not always immediately obvious.  Understanding what influences our school culture and how we contribute to it is a powerful way to ensure our communities of learning continue to work toward improving outcomes for teaching and learning.  Is that not, after all, why we are here? 


Gruenert, S. (2008). School Culture: They Are Not The Same Thing. Principal, 87(4), 56–59.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2013). The Power of Professional Capital. JSD, 34(3), 36–39. Retrieved from

TEdEd (2013, Jun 21). Building a culture of success- Mark Wilson. Retrieved from

Thompson (2014).  Why schools need to employ the 'F' word more. Retrieved from

Stoll (1998). School Culture. School Improvement Network’s Bulletin 9. Institute of Education, University of London. Retrieved from

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