How Principals Can Create a Positive School Culture

A positive culture is an essential element of successful schools, and building principals are in the best position to model and nurture an environment of support and encouragement. They must find and develop ways to ensure that their staff, teachers, and students maintain a healthy and optimistic outlook.

To be effective in their roles, principals need a strong understanding of what it truly means to be a leader. The following methods have been proven to create positive cultures in schools at all levels:

Keep the Messaging Positive

How can people maintain a positive outlook when they are surrounded by negative messaging? If signage in your school primarily uses words like “no” or “don’t,” you may be putting students in a negative headspace many of them cannot escape.

Susan Kessler, executive principal at Hunters Lane High School, suggests reframing your messaging: “… on our walls, messages say ‘Keep walking’ as opposed to ‘No standing,’ or ‘Thanks for putting your cell phone away’ instead of ‘No cell phones allowed.”

When the rules and regulations of the physical spaces at your school appear in positive terms, students feel empowered and have a greater sense of ownership of the hallways, classrooms and common areas in their schools.

Encourage Risk-Taking

It is stifling to work and learn in an environment where ideation is discouraged by administrators who revert to “no” as the de facto answer. Due to the immense pressure to meet state standards and perform well on standardized exams, public schools are particularly susceptible to this pitfall. It is important to avoid falling into a risk-averse mindset that prevents schools from embracing new ideas.

Some administrators, such as Superintendent Nick Polyak of Leyden School District 21, believe regular use of the word “yes” is the key to escaping these trappings. “If you want to create a positive culture of innovation in your schools, think about how you encourage and reward risk-taking by your staff and students. Do you start with a ‘yes’ and try to help new ideas become realities, or do you start with a ‘no’ and list the reasons why something new and different would not work?”

Celebrate Success at School Assemblies

Daily schoolwide assemblies or weekly rallies are held less frequently than in years past, and reintroducing these tools could help with building a positive school culture. Schoolwide gatherings give principals an opportunity to foster school pride, celebrate the achievements of students and teachers and reinforce the goals and expectations that make schools successful.

Too often, discussions on how to create a positive culture happen only while planning for the upcoming term, and the mission loses steam once the day-to-day responsibilities of the school year begin. More frequent schoolwide events allow principals to keep that mission at the forefront of daily conversations with both staff and students.

Establishing and maintaining a positive culture requires the leadership of a principal capable of shaping strong vision and philosophy. Even if you are not an experienced educator, the online Master of Education – Educational Leadership program at Eastern Washington University will prepare you for positions in school leadership, where you can make a positive difference in the lives of students.

Learn more about EWU’s Master of Education – Educational Leadership online program.


Edutopia: A Principal’s Perspective: The Importance of School Culture

K-12 Dive: Administrators Share 7 Tips for Building Positive School Culture

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