Imagine you are going to a restaurant. You are warmly greeted by the staff, escorted to your table and throughout your meal you are made to feel welcome. The atmosphere is pleasant and warm, all making for a wonderful evening. Now, imagine having the exact same meal in the same restaurant without that environment. You are made to feel a burden and the mood is tense.
Would you feel the same way about the meal? Maybe. Would this experience make you want to return to the restaurant? Maybe not. The environment in which the meal is eaten has a huge influence on the person eating it and possibly even how it tastes.
Now let’s imagine that a school is the restaurant, and that education or learning is the meal being consumed and you can understand, quite quickly, how important this environment is to a school. We can call this the culture and climate of the school.
The two concepts of culture and climate are often spoken about synonymously. Steve Gruenert and Tom Whitaker explain the difference quite succinctly expressing that “if culture is a school’s personality, climate is its attitude”. Anthony Muhammad (2018) suggested that culture is the way we do things, whereas climate is how we feel about it. With that in mind, not only is the way in which the ‘meal’ served important, but also how the server feels about how they serve it.
Consequently, it could be said that school leaders play an important role in developing a school for it to be a positive environment so that students can not only eat their “meal”, but enjoy it, too. School principals are important in this process, but for a school’s culture to change, there needs to be multiple leaders and leadership across an organisation in different capacities and at different levels.
“There is a potential barrier to developing climate, due to huge variation in the make-up of international schools.”
Within international schools this can be challenging. The meals are from all over the world, and so are the people serving them. There is a potential barrier to developing the culture and climate of a school due to the enormous variation in the make-up of international schools. Because, by their very nature, international schools are often just that; international.
School leaders should be encouraged to examine the culture and climate of their schools and if they do not align with their own values and beliefs, or those of the organisation, they may wish to initiate a change. It seems to be common practice for leaders to routinely send out a climate survey, but it is important for these not to be used as a success indicator of “how they have done”.
If difficult conversations do not take place and change does not come about on the back of these surveys, it is argued that there is little point in having them. Have you ever filled in a “rate our service” card in a restaurant? Invariably someone will always say, “don’t bother, no one reads them anyway”. Leaders need to be open, transparent and initiate visible change on the back of such surveys and sometimes they may need to address the “elephant in the room”.
“Leaders need to be open, transparent and initiate visible change on the back of climate surveys.”
The measuring of school culture and climate should be conducted in-depth and in a non-tokenistic manner whereby the results are used to support changes and development of school culture and climate as a continued process.
It is understandable as to why we sometimes don’t see this happen, though. It’s tough being critiqued! Especially since the various responsibilities of leaders within a school could also be identified and exposed.
However, this identification and exposing of the responsibilities combined with having difficult conversations about them would highlight certain areas for development and potential change. Similarly, it would make leaders accountable for their behaviours. This, in turn, can and should be used to determine where school culture and climate can be improved and by which leaders, specifically.
The relationships that all leaders have across the school have an immense impact on school culture and climate. Even more so if there are cultural differences, too. As a leader, one way to understand the varying cultural differences within an international school could be through developing relationships with the different groups so that their impact on culture and climate can be lessened.
“Finding consensus between local, national and international cultural mindsets can prove challenging.”
However, often it is the culture of an international school’s host country that becomes the most dominant throughout the school. This could be through the local customs, cultures, norms and social systems. And of course, the general laws of a country will still apply. Therefore, international school leaders not only require relational intelligence in an international sense, but they need a firm understanding of the cultures of the host country, too.
Finding consensus between local, national and international cultural mindsets that exist will surely prove challenging, especially when you factor in the cultural diversity of staff, students, and board members as well as conflicts between local and global curriculum standards and expectations. But it matters and is worth the effort.
Successful restaurants are run by people who enjoy food and who will go to great lengths to make the entire restaurant experience a memorable one. The same should be said for schools.