Walk your school's hallways: Secrets to a healthy school culture

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the May 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Schools where students and staff feel they belong, where there’s respect, where they support each other’s successes, and where their talents are harnessed and celebrations are enjoyed, are places where people want to be and work, and where morale is high and staff turnover is low.

We all know that a school isn’t simply a collection of people and facilities; it’s a community of people who spend time together and who are bound together by shared goals, beliefs, values, needs and routines – in a word, by a culture.

A school’s culture – whether good or bad – is maintained by its longstanding traditions, its mottos, the quality of formal interactions, the style of day-to-day interactions between everyone from the principal to the youngest Preppie, the messages posted in the hallways, and the general feeling that permeates the school. Every school culture is distinct and creates an identity or ‘personality’ – so we think of some schools as being ‘friendly’ and others as ‘aggressive,’ some as ‘caring’ and others as ‘conceited,’ and so on.

A useful way of identifying the culture of a school is to walk down the hallways.

Schools with a toxic culture will typically have few symbols, artefacts or mottos in the hallways. They’ll most likely have no mascot, motto or other imagery that represents the school or expresses its vision.

Those with a positive culture will typically have lots of symbols, artefacts and mottos that foster positive interactions between teachers, students, parents and the community. Positive interactions are the foundation for high self-esteem and for an environment intolerant of bullying and other antisocial activities.

Healthy school cultures

There are at least six characteristics that typify healthy school cultures. These obviously relate to everyone who is in a school – from the staff and students, to parents, school crossing supervisors and even a casual subcontractor – but I’ll focus here mostly on members of staff.

The first of these characteristics is collegiality. Teachers and other staff members help each other; there’s a healthy exchange of ideas that goes beyond the curriculum. People brainstorm and actively exchange ideas, continuously bringing new concepts and practices to the fore.

The second and connected characteristic of a healthy school culture is that experimentation and exploration is encouraged.

A third is that members of staff have high expectations of themselves and each other, and their successes are celebrated. The formal and informal appreciation and recognition of good work has a huge effect on the way people feel.

Celebration creates ties between different people in your school community, makes links between your traditions and new practices, and spreads the ‘feel good’ factor. Public recognition of individuals has a positive influence on the recipients of that recognition, who feel motivated to excel further. Carefully chosen, recognition also indicates to the school community the behaviours that are valued.

Recognising success should be an important feature of school committee meetings, but recognition addresses a fourth characteristic, caring.

Caring isn’t simply about success. A school with a healthy culture also recognises people – which you might do by simply celebrating birthdays and other significant events in the lives of staff.

A fifth is that members of staff are trusted. When we know that others have trust and confidence in us, we’re more likely to investigate, and invest in, new ways of doing things: and when we have a certain degree of freedom, within the budget, we’re more likely to introduce ways of doing things that benefit our students.

A sixth is that members of staff constantly challenge their existing knowledge base by engaging in professional development, reading and sharing journals and magazines like this one, and visiting the classes, and schools, of colleagues in their professional network.

Most teachers want to enjoy a sense of dignity and pride in their profession. They want to be treated with respect. They want good collegial relationships. They want to be organised and to have some degree of control over their time and what happens in their classroom. They want their talents to be harnessed and developed. They want to enjoy their life outside the classroom. Teachers who positively shape their school culture typically do so when there’s a consistent, indeed dogged, approach towards improving the craft of teaching.

A simple audit

Okay, you’ve walked down the hallways and found lots of symbols, artefacts and mottos that foster positive interactions between teachers, students, parents and the community, but you want to see if the school has those six characteristics of healthy school cultures I’ve just listed.

How do you go about doing that? There are three questions to ask, and it’s worth pointing out that these are questions you can ask yourself and ask of others, from inside and outside your school.

  • Do you see professional collaboration between teachers and other members of staff? Do people meet to address professional, organisational and curricular matters in your school?
  • Do you see collegiality? Do people work together and enjoy working together in your school?
  • Do you see people who care? Are people in your school because they desire to be there?

Your honest answers to these questions clearly indicate your school culture or ‘life world’ – that part of your school that creates meaning and value, in contrast to the ‘systems world’ of the school, which refers to aspects of compliance, such as testing, say, or your legal duty of care. That’s not to say that testing or duty of care are matters only of compliance. The ‘life world’ and ‘systems world’ of your school will thrive only if they support each other.

Intergenerational dialogue

You’ll remember I focused earlier on members of staff, but let me now come clean and point out that if you were to focus on staff and to exclude the students, you wouldn’t get far in creating a healthy school culture.

Students in a healthy school culture, one that truly values collegiality, are part of the decision-making process. A school with a healthy culture engages in intergenerational dialogue that shares decision making between adults and children. For intergenerational dialogues to be effective in your school community they need to be real, that is, honest, so it’s vital that they:

  • actually create relationships in the community by fostering empathy between participants;
  • encourage divergent thinking through conversation – actual talking and listening, and, related to this
  • genuinely respect every participant, and
  • actually transform the participants by giving both adults and children the opportunity genuinely to learn new ideas and perspectives – one way to ensure this is by actually implementing the collective decisions that come out of the dialogues.


The principal of any school has a fundamental role in shaping the culture of the school. One of the obvious aspects of this role is to recognise and celebrate the good things that have been set in motion. Another is communication. A principal has the opportunity to conduct hundreds of interactions a day with various members of the school community. Each of these is a chance to express the school’s goals, beliefs, values, needs and routines – it’s culture. Each principal who steps inside a classroom has a choice, whether to talk about replacing ceiling tiles, say, or discussing new learning methods.

Every single person in schools around Australia knows how precious it is to be in a school with a healthy culture, whether we know it in the observance or in the breach. We know, when we see it in the breach, that bullying, destructive peer pressure and low self-esteem have devastating effects on the learning and on the lives of students. They don’t do much good for anyone else who is in a school, either.

There are two huge problems if you’re in a toxic school culture. The first is that you have to identify what’s wrong, which can actually be harder than it looks when you’re in the middle of one. The second, of course, is that toxic school cultures are exceedingly difficult to change, as their toxic elements become deeply entrenched in the behaviours of the people who operate in them.

It’s often helpful to call on outside professional assistance for workshops and coaching, for students, teachers, school leaders and others. It can also be helpful to call on outside professional assistance in order to audit your school culture, to decide what’s healthy and what’s not, and what you need to change.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the May 2010 print edition of Teacher.