This article, and others to follow in this series, explores how school leaders in the international sphere can build and maintain a cohesive and positive school culture, and embed their school mission and vision into every aspect of school life.
The need for school leaders to build, nurture, and patrol the boundaries of school culture boils down to the culture equation: a shared school culture, vision, aim and goal are unambiguous, while schools themselves – and international schools in particular – are highly ambiguous and diverse spaces.
“A shared school culture, vision, aim and goal are unambiguous.”
Whilst this ambiguity and diversity is a key source of strength, agility, resilience and adaptability, it can also create cultural rubbing points, the incidents and interactions that may serve as epicentres of discord and conflict amongst staff.
These may manifest as cliques, perceptions of in groups and out groups, visible micro politics, and parochialism around practices, beliefs, school identity and how things should be done.
To build cohesive school cultures, leaders must be actively engaged in the culture-building process across all areas of the school. Successful schools maintain communities of skilled and dynamic teachers, and this directly and immediately benefits student achievement.
As shown by the work of Mancuso et al, amongst others, it is the most experienced and skilled teachers and teaching couples in the 37-45 year age group who are likely to choose to leave international schools if they feel undervalued, unheard and unsupported in their careers.
“The most experienced teachers in the 37-45 year age group are most likely to choose to leave.”
This sends immediate and tangible ripples across results, reputation and recruitment costs to name but a few areas, and may possibly prompt families to seek out greener educational pastures should such options be available locally.
Poor school cultures are also far less likely to provide support for remaining teachers to perform at their best, further negatively influencing educational outcomes for students. Being seen as a stepping stone to greener professional pastures, instead of as the greener pasture that attracts the best staff, is not a reputation that should sit comfortably with many school leaders.
Exploring the question of how school cultures can be led therefore suggests the need for a model that identifies where school culture emerges and gives strategies that can inform leadership strategies, tactics and decisions. One such model the Cultural Core Framework.
“Our understanding of who we are as an organisation directly influences how we act toward others.”
This framework places culture and practice on a continuum: our understanding of who we are as an organisation directly influences how we act toward others and expect others to act toward us. Our social and professional identities are intertwined, with the emergent school culture an aggregation of the actions of each individual.
Over this continuum are the four arenas of culture building, the different school environments where interactions, practices and processes create the building blocks of culture. The arenas encompass the social and professional environments inside and outside the classroom, and include all members of the school community:
- School professional culture arena: beliefs about the professional identity and culture of the school;
- School professional practice arena :policies, processes and actions involved in the daily operations of the school;
- Non-school, social & residential arena: practices and approaches taking place outside the classroom and in the residential programmes if applicable;
- School social cultural arena: beliefs and understandings of school identity and culture held by the school community outside the classroom.
Within each arena are a set of tactics, strategies and operational approaches that can be used to shape how culture emerges in the arena. In effect, these behaviours constitute an Organisational Blueprint, a roadmap that school leaders can utilise to navigate key aspects of the culture-building process.
At the centre of the Cultural Core Framework sits the school’s mission and vision. Mission and vision, school goals, aims and so on, are aspirational statements. They are the school’s public pronouncements about which direction they are heading, and the journey each member of the community can be expected to take.
They foreshadow any final destinations: international mindedness, care for the environment, respect for the local cultural setting and so on. In essence, they are the broader metrics upon which the school will be judged, more informally than formally, by the broader school community.
For example: Just how well does the school prepare students for life beyond school? What initiatives does the school maintain to engender social equity, care for the environment and international mindedness?
Translating school mission and vision statement often leads to more formal metrics and measurement: university placements, outreach and community engagement, the subjects on offer and the results achieved.
From this perspective, the vision and mission of a school become more than aspirations; they become foundational philosophies that should inform each aspect of school lives for students and their families, and they should be the underpinning driving force behind how teachers act and interact in all culture-making arenas of the school.
“School culture is always a work in progress.”
As the nexus between aspiration and action, the onus falls on school leadership teams to embed the school mission and vision in each and every aspect of school life. This approach, the act of translating aspiration into action, is called Mission Focused Leadership.
This means that in each of the four culture making arenas of the school, the actions, policies and initiatives of school leaders are filtered through the school mission and vision statements. This means that aspiration becomes practice, embedded in each interaction, process, policy and organisational decision.
As simple as that may sound, being a collective narrative, school culture is always a work in progress, with different aspects of cultural change and transformation invariably taking time – many years in some cases. However, using a Mission Focused Leadership approach leaders and leadership teams can build strong organisational cultural foundations that can be utilised and adapted well into the future.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of International School Magazine, out now.