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Building a Positive School Culture

As school leaders, do you ever feel your employees are distant from you? Are your teachers unable to share comfortably about issues they have at school with you? Is there a lack of collaboration among different teaching departments at your school? If the answer to these questions is yes, you should rethink how your school culture is manifesting.

Vietnamese workplace culture is influenced by the power distance structure and hierarchical beliefs. Fearing that speaking out will embarrass their bosses, company subordinates tend to avoid talking about their concerns. In the case of schools, leaders might find themselves in the top positions, giving out instructions and demands without a clear understanding of what teachers need. To solve this miscommunication, school leaders should consider building a positive school culture, where staff development, successful curricular reform, and mutual sharing among colleagues are prioritized.

Well, building a positive school culture takes a lot more effort than putting smiling teachers on a school brochure. This begins with understanding the essential features of school culture. At a recent session of the National Institute for Urban School Leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, school culture is described as the building blocks of a school’s character -- one determining factor for increasing students' achievement.

Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell explained that school culture is categorized into six areas: fundamental beliefs and assumptions, shared values, norms, patterns and behaviors, and tangible evidence.

Some tips for creating a positive, healthy working environment at school include:

1. Model your Positivity

It goes without saying that we learn from the people we respect. As school leaders, you should model the behaviors that you want to see in your teaching staff. If you want your teachers to be comfortable sharing their thoughts, you should initiate those non-work-related conversations. Try to regularly check in with your team about their life, their family, and their health – any topics to show that you care about your staff as human beings and not just your employees. Smile when you walk on the school corridors and greet people with cordiality! It seems like a trivial thing to do, but showing your positivity can significantly improve the workplace culture.

2. Promote mutual sharing – encourage collaboration cross-department

Organize collaborative projects among different teaching departments can be a healthy way to promote mutual sharing. Teachers might have some academic projects they want to work on, but do not have the time or resources to pursue their passion because of their relentless responsibility at school. To accommodate your teaching staff's intellectual curiosity, school leaders can start with having an annual fair where people of each department can collaborate and present an innovative project on a topic of their own choices. This helps motivate them to work towards a mutual goal no matter which department they belong and even fosters our teaching staff's lifelong learning.

3. Repeat and Act out the School Mission

The school's mission is not just understood but also shared by all, from the senior management team through to teachers and every other staff. Some examples of shared values could be “Teaching is a team sport” or “We must ensure all students succeed.” As a means to embrace this culture, school leaders should repeat the school vision now and then. This ensures that everyone knows the goals and assesses his or her daily interaction in alignment with the school’s vision. Individuals are clear of their expectations and the lifelong goal of nurturing our students, which will ultimately foster their sense of fulfillment for this job.

4. Create the reward system for public acknowledgment

If your staff is doing a good job, praise them! Like students, adults also seek professional approval from the people they revere. Public acknowledgment is a good indication of a healthy work culture, where every opinion is valued. You can create a reward system so teachers find themselves recognized for their excellent performance.

5. Social and Emotional Professional Development (PD) sessions

You cannot have a healthy workplace without healthy staff. That's why social and emotional professional development sessions should be a part of your school leadership. An example of great social and emotional PD sessions is the Fill Your Cup activity, which incorporated mindfulness. Staff members can sign up to lead activities they enjoyed, whether that be yoga sessions, running race, cooking, karaoke, etc. based on their preferences. These events can be held weekly or biweekly to relieve school staff from the daily stress they experience.

6. Ensure no one is isolated

There will be introverted people who are not as verbal as others – those who are generally isolated from the surrounding crowd. As an effective school leader, one should notice which people or groups are separated from the community. Then, you can help them to cultivate meaningful interaction with their colleagues. If you find someone awkward at social gatherings, you should reach out and ask them questions, try to strike a conversation, and introduce him to the other staff.

Overall, we all benefit from a positive school culture. In these schools, teachers are driven to work towards students' wellbeing and promote learning on a daily basis. Also, students are likely to have better performance professionally and personally in a healthy and compassionate environment.


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