How can the culture of a school be changed?

I threw this question out on Twitter a week or so ago and got a fair number of responses.

One of the most reasoned responses came from Edna Sackson, an educator from Australia and the author of the blog What Ed Said. Edna shares many of my views on the importance of inquiry and we have collaborated from across the globe to create the blog Inquire Within.

Edna decided to open up the proverbial can of worms in a blog post and I will respond to it here.

Dear Edna,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question in such detail! I think the interest in this question likely stems from the fact that it is a question that we absolutely must answer in education. It relates to the current roiling debates about education reform in the U.S. and abroad.

A little background – I’ve taught for nearly 6 years at a small public high school on an American Indian reservation in Washington State. Our school enrollment consists of 90+% minorities, 90+% free and reduced lunch, and 20+% or our students have been officially classified as homeless. This is a difficult situation for anyone to teach in.

We’ve been in “school improvement” since before I arrived here due to scores on the state standardized assessments and our dropout/ graduation rates. In this time, I’ve experienced several reform efforts. I’ve had 3 superintendents and 4 principals.

Let that sink in for a second…

3 superintendents and 4 principals.

In 6 years.

No wonder we haven’t been able to establish a clear and consistent school culture!

My question stemmed from this experience but it also goes deeper. I really want to know what is working out there – without the media scrubbing or Gates Foundation brainwashing. I want to know the real details, without the slant that school administrators (their jobs are on the line, after all!) put on the progress of their school when faced with media interest.

When a “failing school” is truly turned around (not just test scores), what is the process?

What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?

How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?


I agree with you about establishing learning principles. I believe that this is critical. It creates common language for both teachers and students to use about the culture and focus of the school.

My school is headed in that direction, and yet, I have a fear nagging in the back of my mind – the group creating our learning principles does not include all teachers.

One thing I KNOW about teachers in our school is that we cannot agree about how students should be taught. Especially when it comes to inquiry and student-centered instruction!

Many of our teachers are very teacher/textbook-centric in their instructional methods. They look upon teachers like myself in one of two ways, either (1) I am too “loosey-goosey” and don’t teach the “fundamentals” properly, or (2) what I do is okay for me but too hard for them to replicate. Furthermore, our recent school reform efforts have caused many teachers to become more “traditional” and teach their classes in a more teacher centered, drill-and-kill style.

So, whenever we talk about instruction, we go in circles about how to do it.

This is not working for our students.


I think the real question here is how to go about creating learning principles that are the “right” principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?


3 thoughts on “How can the culture of a school be changed?

  1. I am curious about what it means that 20% of your students are homeless. Can you clarify that for me? Sorry…I can’t even imagine that teaching situation!

  2. A student is officially designated as homeless if they do not have a stable, permanent living situation.

    In other words, they might be “couch surfing” between grandma, auntie, friends, cousins, etc. from night to night.

    So, while they may not be sleeping on the streets or in a car, they don’t necessarily know where they’ll be sleeping next week (or even tonight).

    I can think of a few of my students who certainly fall into this category who are currently living with the families of other students.

  3. This is such a relevant topic for conversation Tyler. In many schools, especially those with a larger staff, I wonder if there will ever be consensus about how we teach our students. I am not an expert at inquiry but try my best, and there are a few others at my school who do too. But there are also those who are very rigid and taditional, who give no choices to students about demonstrating learning and who still see using new technologies as too time-consuming or hard work.
    You’re right though, changing a school culture is nigh on impossible if you do’t have stable and consistent leadership.

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