School & District Management Opinion

Great School Culture: It Starts With the Principal

By Phylis Hoffman — August 23, 2015 3 min read
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This past week marked the opening of 2015/16 academic year here in Los Angeles. On Monday, teachers throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District reported to their school sites. This first day is traditionally known as a “Pupil Free Day.” Teachers spend three hours in professional development and then three hours are allotted for planning and preparation. During the professional development portion of the day most teachers receive a talk from their principal regarding the upcoming school year.

Currently, there is much discussion about school culture and what it takes to build great school culture. Many people have said, and I happen to agree with them, that great school culture begins with the principal. The slide in this picture is from the talk my principal gave on our Pupil Free Day.

It’s based on the research of Richard Allington. Our principal said he would like for us to really try to practice these ideals every day in our classrooms and to adopt them into our core beliefs as a school community. I shared the photo with a few colleagues at other school sites. Their reactions ranged from, “All we did was go through the usual list of district policies and bulletins” to “Wow your meeting was a lot more serious than ours.”

The culture at my school is excellent. Meaning we have a lot of dedicated teachers who plan and teach great lessons with high expectations for all learners. The teachers at my school play a huge role in the culture but our principal definitely sets the tone. And I think what he does other principals can do.

One thing he does that leads to a strong and successful school culture is that he invests in teachers professionally. I have never had so many professional development opportunities in my career. We had three years of studying and coaching focused on writing. We also hired a literacy coach three years ago to help us learn and master the many components of balanced literacy. Last year, we started work with a professional development coach to begin using Cognitively Guided Instruction for Mathematics. Every Thursday we are paid to stay afterschool and plan with our grade level or subject team. Last year we were given planning time during the school day, one hour every other week, and this year we get that one hour every single week. On top of this he also sets aside money in the school budget to pay for our attendance at various summer institutes of our choosing.

On top of all this, our principal helps build our school culture by learning throughout the year alongside us. In my past role as a literacy coach, working with teachers in literacy institutes across the district and the state, I would rarely see principals participate. How can principals evaluate teachers when they don’t take the time to learn what their teachers are learning? How can they evaluate the quality of outside professional development if they don’t participate in it? For the last three years, our principal has participated in summer reading and writing institutes sitting side by side with teachers from our school.

Last but not least, he lays the foundation for culture at our school through trust in the teachers. By trust, I mean that he doesn’t hide away in his office. He is in classrooms constantly and telling our parents and our students how lucky they are to have us as their teachers because of our dedication and hard work. He often elicits our ideas and then supports them, and makes changes based on teacher input.

I don’t talk about my school much to my friends who work elsewhere in the district because it frustrates them. They want what I have, a great environment. Schools like mine can happen anywhere if principals begin to accept the huge role they play in setting the tone for a great culture.

The opinions expressed in Teaching While Leading are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.