Principal as Instructional Coach: School Culture
Blog, Leadership Skills and Implementation

Principal as Instructional Coach: Assessing and Refining Your School’s Culture

By Terry Wilhelm

As far back as the 1970s, a body of research loosely termed “effective schools research” identified factors that directly impacted student learning. These include a safe and orderly campus environment and strong parent and community relations.

School culture’s impact

Forty years of research has confirmed that school culture impacts student learning. As the research has grown, the understanding of these terms has become increasingly sophisticated and more reflective of the complexities of preparing all students for college and careers in the global marketplace. Because school culture has a palpable influence on learning, it’s worth a principal’s time and attention.

Assessing your school’s culture

As a principal, each new school year is an opportunity to assess your own school’s culture and consider steps to continue to improve and refine it in different ways. There are many areas where principals can make observations, note problems, and propose solutions to improve school culture. Here are three questions to ask yourself when evaluating your school’s culture.

1. Is visiting the front office a friendly experience?

Telling markers include the way parents and visitors are received in the front office. Are they greeted? Ignored? The Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy has forced schools to implement much more stringent security measures to screen and manage visitors, but what is your staff doing to mitigate the potential, implied message of unfriendliness that these measures may carry?

2. How does your staff respond to guest presentations?

Guest presenters who come to your school to facilitate professional learning are another good benchmark for assessing school culture. During guest presentations, principals can make the following observations:

  • How does the staff act and react?
  • Are they respectful?
  • Do they participate?
  • Do some of them make a beeline for the back of the room and unfold their newspapers?
  • How many are on their cell phones or other devices while the presenter is addressing the group?
  • Have any presenters ever refused to come back to your school?

3. How are substitute teachers treated?

How about substitute teachers? Granted, some substitutes are themselves unskilled and perform poorly with students, and you may even ask the district not to send them back to your school. But given the dearth of good subs that generally begins to peak around winter break, don’t you want to keep the good ones coming back?

As you think about these cultural markers, I urge you to convene your teacher leaders and design ways to measure them – for example, a parent survey regarding front office operations – and then devise ways to address issues that may be contributing to negativity.

Improving school culture by welcoming substitute teachers

When I was a principal, my leadership team felt that we could greatly improve the experience of substitute teachers at our school. We asked the staff and students to begin to refer to them as “guest teachers.”

Assembling ‘Guest Teacher’ folders

Each classroom teacher was asked to put together a simple guest teacher folder that included:

  • Seating charts
  • Emergency procedures
  • Names of several highly reliable students
  • Other important information

These folders were left in a prominent place on teachers’ desks. The office had a copy of each teacher’s folder in case a guest teacher could not locate it. The leadership team agreed to serve as informal greeters whenever they encountered a guest teacher on campus.

Our efforts to be friendlier to substitute teachers seemed to pay off. Guest teachers began saying that ours was one of the friendlier schools. This helped ameliorate our mid-year substitute shortage, got us more competent substitutes who were happy to return, and ultimately resulted in better learning for our students when their teachers were absent.

A healthy school culture is worth the work

Your school’s culture is worth the investment of time and attention. Inviting your teacher leaders to share leadership with you through this specific type of work will yield superior results. The ultimate beneficiaries will be your students. The net result of the improvements and refinements to your culture will be to enhance their learning.

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