Despite innumerable changes in the world and in education, one constant is that teachers have the greatest impact on the success of every student’s learning journey. Knowing that, our efforts need to focus on what teachers need to be effective, rather than on simply expecting them to carry out a range of school improvement practices.

How many school improvement initiatives have you implemented … and how strong were your results? Now is the time for leaders to look at school improvement from a new perspective of supporting teachers and invest their focus and energy into a different approach to continuous school improvement—using the power of school culture.

Appreciating School Culture

Understanding how school culture develops, what influences it, and its relationship to school effectiveness is the key to unlocking new solutions for improving schools. However, leaders must first realize how to develop and monitor school culture and its ever-changing dynamics .

 Leading through a culture lens is not an easy or familiar approach for many leaders. However, leaders can now position themselves and their schools to create a culture vision and leverage the impact of that vision on teacher effectiveness and student achievement. Leah Shafer (2018) explores the work of Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell in her article, “What Makes a Good School Culture.” According to Shafer and Bridwell-Mitchell, “Once principals understand what constitutes culture—once they learn to see it not as a hazy mass of intangibles, but as something that can be pinpointed and designed—they can start to execute a cultural vision.”

According to Social Circle City Schools (Georgia) Superintendent, Dr. Robbie Hooker, “A healthy school culture leads to supportive leadership where teachers and administrators can work together to seek and implement solutions for our students’ academic success and teachers’ growth and development.”

“A healthy school culture leads to supportive leadership where teachers and administrators can work together to seek and implement solutions for our students’ academic success and teachers’ growth and development.”

Cultivating Teachers’ Investment in School Culture

Encouraging and sustaining teachers’ active engagement in improving school culture requires some imagination.

Just imagine:

  • Leaders tapping the power of teacher voice and agency—their ability to act on their voice to create a culture supporting effective school practices
  • Going beyond teacher feedback associated with static surveys and instead using real-time teacher voice so teachers and leaders can collectively seek new solutions
  • Teachers and administrators working in a culture where collective action and collective responsibility create a unique togetherness and collaboration to improve schools and learning environments for their students

Leaders are already taking a big step by seeing culture as the foundation of continuous improvement, rather than an add on. They see how culture is shaped by the voice of one and the voices and actions of all (collective action and collective responsibility).

For this reason, districts like Virginia Beach City Public Schools  in Virginia and Social Circle schools are implementing Cognia’s MyVoice, a real-time culture monitoring platform that enables teachers and leaders to foster collaboration and develop a school-wide commitment with a new approach to continuous improvement.

Virginia Beach City Schools Chief of Staff Dr. Donald Robertson sees culture evolve from teacher voice and agency, and supports a growth mindset with students. “We know ‘culture trumps strategy,’” he said. “In a leader’s hands, MyVoice can drive adaptive, intrinsic change.”

Dr. Hooker uses MyVoice in all Social Circle schools to create “opportunities for real, meaningful conversations with teachers and explore solutions that will lead to new ways of thinking.”

Empowering Teachers with MyVoice

Rather than a static point-in-time mechanism such as a survey, MyVoice engages teachers in a continuous process of input. Multiple times during a school year, teachers can rate statements on 48 “School Culture Indicators” organized according to 10 “School Culture Drivers.” MyVoice also includes a COVID-19 dashboard relating to safety and health.

Using real-time data, leaders work with teachers to create and monitor new solutions for improving their school. These 10 Culture Drivers define the areas of focus and are listed below.

Clear and Unified Direction: The school’s vision, mission, and beliefs (school’s direction) are important in developing universally understood norms, practices, and policies. Programs are monitored for effectiveness in supporting the school’s direction.

Professional Engagement: Teachers are lifelong learners necessitating multiple opportunities for them to engage in professional activities both collectively and individually. Conversations are created in the system to improve practice while modeling the attributes of a learner.

Instructional Autonomy: Teachers have the flexibility to make decisions about each student’s success using multiple metrics. Standards determine the core framework for teachers; however, flexibility, innovation, and personalization in instructional design are encouraged, supported, and shared.

Collaboration: Collaborative planning is required to develop and share instructional resources, and to embed the professional learning needed for expanding and improving teacher practices. New instructional designs emanate from shared expertise and support in using new instructional designs, and then evaluating their effectiveness.

Empowerment: Teachers have the responsibility to make individual and collective decisions that impact the school and classroom. Teacher voice and expertise are valued as an integral part of solving problems, developing school improvement processes, and planning their own professional growth.

Feedback and Reflection: Pervasive instructional observations provide immediate feedback and create conversations about effectiveness. The use of examples from practice and reflection activities provides clarity for professional growth.

Resource Priorities: Teacher strengths and student needs are aligned in developing schedules that maximize teachers’ skills. Shared selection of resources is leveraged to activate innovation and support teachers in meeting the varied needs of students.

Support and Care: Experienced teachers are valuable in providing support and mentoring to their colleagues. Meeting a teacher’s personal and professional needs through focused professional learning with follow-up is essential for professional growth.

Sense of Belonging: The feeling of being valued and part of the school brings meaning and importance to teachers’ work. Teachers avoid working in isolation when they feel a sense of belonging. Diversity is valued, and programs are in place to make teachers feel like they belong.

Teacher Advancement: Opportunities are created for teachers to be leaders and experts in their fields. Career advancement is fostered through professional learning and innovations that lead to new professional opportunities.

Schools can indeed implement practices that access the expertise of teachers to improve instructional practices, develop collaborative processes to identify areas to improve, and create innovative solutions. This is an ongoing enterprise—one that yields results in “normal” times, and also supports teachers and students during challenging times such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. We can work together to build a courageous approach to continuous improvement that incorporates teacher agency and teacher voice in schools.

Robert R. Neu, Ed.S.
Rob Neu is a  recognized leader in bold initiatives transforming school districts from status quo select and sort systems into inclusive learning systems for all.  He has over thirty-two years of experience in public education, including ten years as superintendent of schools in Michigan, Washington State, and Oklahoma. Rob has presented around the world on equity, social justice reform, social emotional learning, and promoting healthy school culture. He has been recognized for his work in education leadership and contributions to education diversity. His work on inclusion in advanced coursework resulted in Washington State law. He co-founded MyVoice, a research-based school culture framework and web-based tools that utilizes culture to improve teaching and student learning.