Taking Inventory: Building A Positive School Culture from the Inside Out

Taking Inventory: Building A Positive School Culture from the Inside Out

by Maggie Beattie Roberts, Member of The Educator Collaborative

Taking Inventory: Building A Positive School Culture from the Inside Out

In just a few short weeks, my first born will be attending Kindergarten. When my wife and I were researching potential public schools for him, we didn’t look at the schools’ test scores or report card. We ignored the schools’ rating on popular school ranking sites like Great Schools or real estate sites like Zillow. 


Instead, we visited the schools and stood in the hallways during busy, unpolished times – student drop-off, lunch time, passing periods. We watched the teachers interact with their students and each other. We looked at the students’ faces, listened to their conversations with each other and noticed how they acted as they transitioned from one place to the other. 


We parked ourselves in the hallway during the busiest time in the school day so we could feel the culture of the building. After twenty years working in education, this is still the primary way I get to know a school – spending five minutes to briefly live inside the culture of a building during an unpolished, unplanned, unstructured moment of the day. This is where a school’s culture is most vibrant, alive, and telling. 


As important as a positive school culture is, it is tricky to define what components actually come together create the cultural alchemy of a school. There are so many concrete and tangible outcomes schools are pressured to address – test scores, student attendance ratios, graduation rates – it can be tempting for a school’s leadership team to see school culture as too ‘soft’ to be made a priority. 


Dr. Ebony Bridwell-Michell, associate professor of education with expertise in leadership, management and organization at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, cautions against this. She warns of the mistake to overlook the construction of a school’s culture in lieu of more tangible, measured or high-stakes goals like improving test scores. Referring to Bridwell-Michell’s work, Leah Shafer writes in her piece “What Makes a Good School Culture,” that “once principals understand what constitutes culture – once they learn to see it not as a hazy mass of intangibles, but as something that can be pinpointed and designed – they can start to execute a cultural vision” (2018). 


So what are the tangible details a school might identify and study in order to build a positive school culture? Bryan Kerachsky, principal of Skinner Road School in Vernon, CT, is trying to answer that question alongside the school’s instructional leadership team and myself. 


The team at Skinner Road School is tackling the important work of nurturing a positive culture by 

  1. naming the varied elements of their school culture they’d like to improve;
  2. breaking down each element into the specific details one can actually observe, name and describe; and
  3. visiting each other’s classrooms and taking inventory of those details as a way to wrap their arms around what one might work on in order to improve a school-wide culture. 


This way, the team can not only envision of the cultural elements they wish to nurture; they can also identify concrete criteria they can study, name and improve upon. No “hazy mass of intangibles” here.


The team and I spent three hours at the end of the 2018-19 school year naming the different elements of school culture they’d like to work on next year. 

We then prioritized the list by asking ourselves which element felt the most crucial to address. The instructional team is made up of teachers, specialists, interventionists and social workers. Since the team is a cross-section of the staff, it was important for them to isolate an element of the school culture they thought would gain the most consensus with their colleagues, especially since teachers would be opening their classroom doors for the team to take inventory of different classroom details. 


The instructional team ended up selecting engagement to address first as a staff in the fall. 

Then the proverbial rubber hit the road and we had to do the hard work of naming concrete classroom details that we could actually observe while studying engagement as our focus. When we study engagement in a classroom, what do we actually look at? What do we listen for? How do we know when a student is engaged? When a teacher is engaged? What does an engaging classroom look like? What does engaging student work look like? We came up with lots of details, ranging from body language to talk to the structure of a teacher’s lesson to the student work. 


We looked at the list of concrete classroom details and were a bit overwhelmed. We needed a way to group them so that we could streamline our focus for our classroom visits. We categorized the classroom details, developing two categories of engagement we could actually take inventory of: structures and communication. 

We practiced using one of the observation forms together in a classroom, breaking off into pairs so that each partnership could study one classroom detail together (so as not to get overwhelmed by writing down observations for all of the details). For example, the principal and I studied the environment. We jotted all the observations we could make about the environment: flexible seating, kids sitting in partnerships, lots of books available, instructional charts that the kids could access while working independently. The observation partnerships solely studying the classroom for one of the details allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of that detail while also looking for trends to emerge across the multiple classrooms visited. 


Our hope is to give our colleagues and ourselves concrete things to work on if engagement is going very well with our students this year. Instead of feeling defeated, the instructional team hopes to share concrete details that teachers can actually work on to improve engagement and continue developing a positive school culture. 


Our hope is to get small and concrete with our inventories of classrooms to that we, as teachers, have agency and control to improve something ethereal like engagement and positive school culture. 


Our hope is that someday you’ll visit Skinner Road School during an unpolished transition time, when the hallways are bustling with students, parents and teachers, and want to send your child there because they’ve nurtured a special feel to their school – a positive school culture. 

This post is dedicated to the wonderful staff, administration and students of Skinner Road School in Vernon, CT. 

Shafer, Leah. “What Makes a Good School Culture?” Harvard Graduate School of Education, 23 July 2018, www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/07/what-makes-good-school-culture.