What is a School Culture Plan and Why You Need One Now

Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

What is a School Culture Plan and Why You Need One Now

Posted in Evolving Ed | January 13, 2021

The Difference Between Climate and Culture

With such a dramatic shift in education over the past year, school culture is changing whether you’re actively guiding it or not. So, it’s crucial that you’re focused on ensuring your school’s culture is shifting in positive ways. Baruti Kafele defined the difference between climate and culture as the "mood" versus the "lifestyle" of the school. School culture guru Todd Whitaker explicated several differences between culture and climate. One set of comparative phrases that he has used is particularly useful in understanding the difference: If culture is "the way we do things around here," then climate is "the way we feel around here" and can differ depending on the day, whereas culture does not vary on such a short-term basis.

No matter the definition, the key takeaway is that culture is on a different level than climate. That's because culture is a seemingly permanent fixture of any organization and only changes through concerted strategic effort, often over many years. And if you don't have a plan to make that strategic effort, you could be missing out on realizing your full potential as an organization. That's why you need a school culture plan.

Examples of School Culture Plans

There are many examples of school culture plans that work. The key is to develop a plan that meets your culture where it is and effectively roadmaps where it wants or needs to go. No single strategy is a panacea, nor are all plans created equal. Here are a few examples:

  • The Medicine & Community Health Academy (MCH) - Detroit: This group immediately identifies where the school was, where it is, and where it is going with heavy integration of building-wide behavior expectations.
  • Princeton Community Middle School - Cincinnati: Lengthy and granular, focusing on norms, beliefs, and data-driven goals and procedures.
  • Takoma Education Campus - Washington, D.C.: The linked Prezi is an interesting way to see how the development of a school culture plan plays out in a pre-service/in-service setting, from definitions and norms to more campus-specific items.

Now, these plans don't necessarily address the key element of overcoming staff division and resistance, which will also need to be a key part of your overall approach. The act of developing the plan itself may help, as conversation helps build consensus. But bear in mind that, at some point, there may be a hard slog of working through some sort of resistance to your plan. Plan accordingly.

The Intertwining of Data and Heart

When you look closer at these model school culture plans, a school's ability to be data-focused while remaining student-centered really stands out. At the aforementioned Medicine & Community Health Academy, their school culture plan intersperses items—such as student expectations—that speak directly to the heart while maintaining clear, data-driven strategies and tactics to build the desired overarching culture of the school.

For example, MCH publishes the following expectations: Healing, Ownership, Purpose, and Engagement (HOPE), with a brief definition of each. These heart-centric expectations are sandwiched between data points (graduation and attendance rates, behavior data, etc.), a behavior matrix common to Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) plans, an agreed-upon framework for addressing discipline, and more. In MCH's words, these steps are helping them "move from anecdotal to evidence-based discussions about students." Without this combination of data and a caring approach, formalized in a detailed school culture plan, it would be unlikely that the school would see much progress.

Your learning management system (LMS) can be the hub for all of this "head and heart" activity. Not only can the K-12 LMS be the repository of the plan, but it can also be the place where behavioral data is stored, curated, and tracked. The LMS is especially critical when trying to keep the momentum going on a school culture plan in a Hybrid Education setting, as the data is cloud-based and team members can meet from multiple locations, synchronously or asynchronously, as needed.

Technology Itself Isn't a Plan

Edtech tools are fantastic. Edtech tools and a reliable learning management system are the digital backbone of 21st-century education. Still, technology cannot exist simply for its own sake if you are genuinely going to improve your school or district's culture. Your technology must support your plan, not the other way around. Technology should make it easier to gather, curate, and discuss meaningful data (via Todd Whitaker's School Culture Survey, for example), rather than take the focus away from your improvement efforts. If your first question is "what LMS should we use?" and not "what should our students know and be able to do?" you're probably barking up the wrong tree.

You'll want to recognize that your school or district's culture can positively or negatively affect technology adoption and use in the classroom. Is there a culture of trust and open access between district leadership, teachers, and students in your school? What about in the classroom—where the rubber really meets the information superhighway? Are your teachers comfortable taking risks and innovating in their approach? When the culture is healthy, it's incredible how your investments in edtech can pay off in the service of learning objectives. When the culture is defeatist, all the technology bells and whistles in the world won't stave off total curricular stagnation. Get the strategy and the plan right first, and let that drive your edtech decisions.

Flexibility in Planning

We don't know what school will look like three months from now, let alone three years from now. As we (hopefully) emerge from the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, it's likely that some aspects of what we think of as "traditional school" will return, while others will have been forever altered. That's all the more reason to remain flexible in your planning process. All the more reason to home in on values, expectations, and data that reflect a healthy school culture in any learning scenario. Amidst uncertainty, you need a plan to make sure everyone understands and is living, as Todd Whitaker would say, "the way we do things around here." And that means first making sure that the way you are doing things is positive and productive for all learners.

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