School Culture: A key aspect of positive and successful schools

This week we have two Guest Bloggers. I’m excited to introduce you to Kent D. Peterson who is Emeritus Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. And Scott K. Guzman-Peterson a teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the Glendale Unified School District, Glendale, California.  Kent and Scott are a father and son writing duo who have been discussing positive and negative school leadership, social justice in schools, ways to shape school culture, and other educational topics for many years.  This is their first piece together.



What is Culture?

School culture is the underlying set of norms and values, history and stories, symbols and logos, rituals and traditions that make up the foundation of a school’s social and emotional ethos.

While “climate” represents the tone of a school, culture consists of a deeper and broader set of elements that shape everything that goes on within a school, shaping how people think, feel, and act. School leaders—administrators and teachers alike—need to understand what culture is and how to shape it through words, actions, policies, and daily practices.  

School culture is one of the key elements of creating positive, successful schools. Without a culture that supports learning for all, positive relationships, meaningful values, as well as norms for improvement, achievement, and colleagueship, schools are likely to be less productive or create potentially toxic environments. Positive features of school climate need to be fostered, maintained, and fine-tuned over time. 

School cultures vary across districts, regions, countries, but most often comprise a few foundational elements, as detailed below.


Norms are the collective expectations for behavior. What is the expected attire for staff and administrators? What types and frequency of discussions are occurring and where? What professional development is encouraged and engaged informally? Who talks in staff meetings?  What are considered “good” teaching practices? 

Norms should be presented early in the school year and collectively shaped by colleagues and school staff to foster buy-in. Just as teachers allow students to share their ideas when creating classroom expectations, norms, and goals to foster a familial and accepting learning environment, so too can leaders provide spaces for staff contributions. Such practice ensures that everyone’s voices are heard and demonstrates that the classroom and school is a safe learning space where ideas and opinions are valued.

Examples of norms include: “All staff will be respectful of other’s ideas and inputs,” or “Our focus efforts are solution-oriented, applicable and relevant to our school’s mission,” or “We will adhere and respect everyone’s time by starting and ending meetings on time.” 


Values are based on what is important, valued and held dear. Which is valued more, learning or socio-emotional development? Are art and music meaningful aspects of the school? Is equity a central value of the school? Does the school’s mission strongly prioritize social justice? Are extended learning opportunities prioritized for a whole child approach?

Values contribute to creating a well-rounded school culture and are gathered from multiple cultural backgrounds, socio-emotional needs, and academic goals. When staff share their values with each other in a safe, accepting environment, such as community circles and team building exercises, they can be adapted to the context of a school’s culture. This holds a lasting impact on staff morale and the overall school culture.


Beliefs are collective, school-wide understandings about people, processes, and purposes. Do staff believe that some “types” of students are more likely to succeed than others? Is teacher learning considered to be an individual or a group process? Are there varying beliefs among departments or learning groups? How do staffs’ beliefs impact the school’s culture?

There are many schools where not all teachers and staff believe that every student can learn, grow, and succeed academically. It is necessary to incorporate staff beliefs into team building activities and share real-world student academic and teacher successes to create an optimistic school culture where staff see examples of their beliefs in policies and practices.

Histories and Stories

The history of a school and its stories are key features of school culture. In particular, stories communicate core values, reinforce the core mission, and build a sense of commitment. How did the school form and what key events shaped the culture of the school? What stories are told in the staff room, on social media, and in the hallways? Stories influence how one thinks and feels about a school. It is important to have a deep understanding of a school’s history, as lack of knowledge can affect student’s buy-in of the school culture and mission.

For example, when a school is well-established, sharing the school’s history, alumni stories, and accomplishments with incoming students can increase staff and student’s excitement about joining the school community.


Symbols are found in every school, providing a visual representation of core values and ideas. What is your school’s name and what does it represent? Is there a school logo or mascot that reinforces key values and expectations? What has the school done to beautify the campus? Are there murals and/or student work posted? Is student work regularly changed and added to?

Weak symbols may contribute to low student buy-in during school gatherings, assemblies, and extracurricular activities, as well as affecting overall school culture. Schools without an established mascot, school colors, or historical representative symbols result in a lack of a collective school identity and impacts student motivation, teacher morale and sense of community.  

Rituals, Traditions, Ceremonies, and Celebrations

Strong school cultures include engaging in a wide variety of rituals, traditions, ceremonies, and celebrations. Rituals include the regular morning greeting from the principal. Traditions are regular activities that communicate meaning and purpose, molding and cementing relationships and commitment to the school and its mission. Ceremonies are a more complex set of rituals, symbols, traditions, and stories that are held at key times during the school year. These may include graduation ceremonies, school opening ceremonies, or spring solstice ceremonies. Celebrations, both large and small, recognize the accomplishments of staff, students, community, and stakeholders. For example, when new students and staff join the school community, creating a welcome video for them can show them care and appreciation. A best practice is to prepare a fresh, creative video each year for new staff and students.

The Importance of Reading, Assessing, and Shaping the Culture

As school culture develops over time as people work together, share successes and challenges, and establish professional relationships, it is important to read—understand the current and historical culture, assess—identify the positive elements of the culture, and actively work to reinforce, shape, or reshape the culture. 

School principals, heads, as well as teacher leaders are central to maintaining and shaping the culture. Leaders should regularly take time to reflect on the current culture; identify aspects of the culture to change or reinforce; and make plans to shape or reshape their culture through their words, actions, policies, and daily practices. 

One way to do so is by using Google forms to conduct easy, quick, data-driven check-ins with staff and students regarding what is and is not working, as well as areas with room for growth.

The best leaders choose words carefully to highlight important aspects of the culture and energize school staff and students. Such leaders know which communication method (face-to-face; videos; social media; hand-written notes) is best for their messages. 

Leaders should find and implement small actions that resonate with staff. Do staff enjoy Post-It Note encouragement after an observation? Do staff appreciate inspiring stories of success and growth with students in a weekly school staff newsletter? Find ways to incorporate words of affirmation and empathy each week as an avenue to promote culture. 

When leaders show they care and appreciate staff, it can make a difference in motivating them to put in extra effort to produce amazing results. While teachers might not have had the initial drive to implement their ideas, they are often more determined after hearing encouragement. They are also less apt to feel burned out if leaders show empathy by taking time to perform quick personal or mental health check-ins. 

Every action a school leader takes can affect the school culture, from decisions made to planning and communicating values, to choices for professional development. Reactions, body language and overall demeanor play a part in how one is perceived, listened to, and respected as a leader. Understanding how each staff member responds to feedback is essential for helping the collective school group come together to work as a whole.

Policies may seem like managerial structures, but they also signal what norms or values are central to the school. At the same time, involving staff in deciding which policies need to be adjusted or changed helps reinforce a collegial culture. Incorporating team department planning and time to share about different team and individual needs allows for staff to feel heard and appreciated.

Finally, daily practices, how leaders spend their time, which classrooms they visit, how they use social media, and what questions they ask teachers are all cultural messages that form or reform the culture. Leaders should use daily practices as a way to shape the culture. Be reflective and attentive to what those practices communicate. 

In Conclusion

Organizational culture is a crucial part of any school. Success or failure can often be attributed to the nature of a school’s culture.  Formal and informal leaders are key to knowing, maintaining, and shaping that culture. 

To learn more about Kent D. Peterson and Scott K. Guzman-Peterson and their respective work, pleaseGoogle Kent D. Peterson for further information on his writing and books.

References and Suggested Resources

  • Peterson, Kent and Deal, Terrence. 2nd Edition (2009). The Shaping School Culture Fieldbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Peterson, Kent. Is Your School’s Culture Positive or Negative?

  • Peterson, Kent.  Positive or Negative. Journal of Staff Development (2002).
  • Deal, Terrence and Peterson, Kent. 3rd Edition (2016). Shaping School Culture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Muhammad, Anthony. (2009). Transforming School Culture. Solution Tree.
  • Kruse, Sharon and Louis, Karen. (2008).  Building Strong School Cultures. Corwin Press.

Kent D. Peterson Bio 

Dr. Peterson is an Emeritus professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis and founder of the Vanderbilt Principals Institute. 

His research and writing have focused on the realities of principals’ work, school improvement, effective leadership, and school culture building.

In addition to numerous articles, he has co-authored several books with Terrence Deal that examine leadership and school culture.  These include: The Leadership Paradox, Shaping School Culture, and the Shaping School Culture Fieldbook from Jossey Bass Publishers.

In addition to his teaching and research he has consulted with states, districts, and foundations on effective leadership development designs and practices to help leaders better serve all their students, staff, and communities.

Scott Guzman-Peterson Bio 

Scott Guzman-Peterson is a veteran teacher of 13 years in some of the largest public-school systems in the United States. He has taught students the wonders of math and science ranging from kindergarten through high school within in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools as well as the Los Angeles Unified School District. Most recently he has taught middle school science in the Glendale Unified School District, Glendale, California. 

Mr. Guzman-Peterson focuses his teaching on a whole-child approach with emphasis on creating a welcoming, inclusive, and transformative classroom environment for all students. Teaching in urban communities, making meaningful connections with all stakeholders, and shaping school culture, drive Mr. Guzman-Peterson to continue learning, teaching, and leading in public education.

3 thoughts on “School Culture: A key aspect of positive and successful schools”

  1. A brilliant piece of work. I have adapted these strategic headings for mt professional development workshops and reading tjis makes me content because its in sync with your message 100%

  2. So good to see you writing with your son, Kent. Wishing you good times in retirement. Bruce Barnett

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