How School Leaders Can Implement Positive Culture & Climate Initiatives


The importance of building trust & focus to get educators to buy into new schoolwide programs

In 1849, French journalist Jean-Baptise Alphonse Karr wrote what was to become a famous epigram: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Sheri, a seasoned, successful principal, had just been named to lead a struggling school. By all measures, this school was failing. Test scores indicated that most students were “falling far behind” in reading and math, teacher morale was low, parents had lost trust that the school was a safe place for their children, and even the facility was run down.

After several weeks of collecting data, talking to students, teachers, parents, and local community members, Sheri knew that they would need to tackle the school climate and culture before they would be able to make a lasting difference in student achievement. Since the school was low performing, many new initiatives, programs, and leaders had been pushed on the staff. They had become hardened to change and were operating on the axiom, “this too will pass.”

Trust had been broken and focus on priorities has been eroded. Sheri needed a plan if she was going to be successful in leading her campus toward a culture that would support student success.

→ See how Kickboard supports leaders to get staff buy-in

Building TRUST 

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni reminds us that trust is the foundation upon which productive teams are built. Once trust is earned, you can focus on the rest of the work. In order for Sheri to lead her staff in creating a strong climate and culture, a two-way trust bond had to be built. Here is how to start:

Be Student-Centered

Always make decisions that are in the best interest of students. Always. Once your staff knows that your compass always points toward students, they will trust that decisions are not aimed against them. Being student-centered keeps the FOCUS on the purpose of the school – to educate students.

Be an Open Listener

Changes must never be made in a vacuum. When you ask for input, you must be willing to hear different ideas and perspectives and adjust accordingly. Include all stakeholders before making a decision about whether or not to implement a change.

Be Transparent

If your staff doesn’t know what you are thinking, you can not expect them to get on board with new ideas. Being transparent with your staff will encourage them to do the same with their students. Making “backroom” decisions will erode the TRUST you are trying to build.

Be Visible

When teachers wonder what is going on behind closed doors their imaginations can run wild. Try to keep your door open as much as possible. Walk the halls. The quick chats you have when you are out in the building will reinforce the fact that you are “in this with them.” When parents drop in to pick up kids or volunteer, and they see you out in the building, they will begin to believe that you are there for their child.

Be a Role Model

It is not enough for you to “talk the talk,” it is mandatory that you “walk the walk.” When you say you are going to do something, do it. Everyone needs to know that they matter and that you understand what is on their plate. Don’t ask your staff to do anything that you don’t do as well. Model a lesson, help a teacher write lesson plans, do hall duty. Get to know your teachers as real people, not just by their job. Set your expectations intentionally high, for staff and yourself.

FOCUS on the goals

Once trust has been established as the new normal in your school, it is time to get FOCUSED on the strategies that will support your new school climate initiatives. Many of your staff will see this focus as yet another change. Everyone in the business of educating children is all too familiar with the alphabet soup of initiatives and acronyms that surround their work every day. These initiatives often seem like “one-offs” that are not linked to each other. If Sheri was going to put a climate and culture initiative into place, she was going to have to make sure that it was inherently linked to the identity and mission of the school and that everyone stayed focused.

Stick to the Mission

Tie the culture change initiative to the school’s mission and purpose. The goal of building a strong climate and culture might seem to take a backseat to core academic practices, but if you understand that students will thrive academically when they feel emotionally supported, make that a priority. For example, Southwest Airlines’ mission is to support its’ staff so the staff will successfully support customers. The same strategy will work at your school.

Monitor for Outcomes

It is critical to stay laser-focused on your goals and outcomes. There are many initiatives that divide our attention. When implementing a new one, it is important to “clear the deck” and allow teachers the time, resources and support to be successful. You must monitor what you want to happen. Constantly ask yourself, “How do I KNOW that the change is happening? “ Goerge Bernard Shaw stated that “the single biggest problem in creating change is the illusion that it has taken place.” Make sure you collect data to monitor your progress toward intended outcomes.

Prepare to Compromise

Often when a new initiative is being rolled out to your staff, you will find resistance. Be sure to identify the root causes of the resistance. Some come in the form of teachers just not wanting to add yet another project. This type of resistance probably means that you need to make sure that your team knows why the change is important. Another form of resistance could be from staff who buy into the “why”, but have a different idea about the process. Don’t be so tied to your idea that you overlook other options that could accomplish your desired outcome. Make it safe for your staff to express their ideas and you just might find that you can get everyone on board. Be prepared to change the change.

Provide Expectations and Coaching

The first step in setting expectations for others is to be crystal clear that YOU understand your expectations. If you can not clearly state them, you are not ready to share them. Once you can state your expectations, write them down. This will prevent any misunderstandings from moving forward. Develop a plan on how stakeholders will receive ongoing professional development and support aligned to your initiative. Remember that support also means that they will have the necessary materials and resources.

Implement Shared Accountability

During the planning phase, be sure that you are clear on how you will KNOW if you are getting the desired outcomes. It is not enough for the leaders to just ask how things are going. You must observe, collect appropriate data and use it to determine if outcomes are actually happening. Don’t do this work alone. Create a diverse monitoring and support team that will work together, share the balance of power, and focus on the desired outcomes.

One final thought:

Trust and Focus may not be enough.

We have to stop thinking that “change is hard.” Change is hard in the same way that finishing a marathon or getting an advanced degree is hard. The fact that change requires effort doesn’t keep committed people from succeeding. Flip the script on change. Leadership guru, Simon Sinek often says, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Be the one who inspires on your campus.

Considerations for your change initiative: 

  • How will you KNOW that you are getting the outcomes you need for success?
  • What will you DO to ensure that everyone is on board?

If you find yourself in a situation like our principal, Sheri, and know that your school is ready for a real change in climate and culture, reach out to our experienced Kickboard team and we will work with you through the entire process. Check out our offerings and fill out an interest form.