‘I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. This culture, this staff, this school… being part of a team like this is what keeps me going’.
What is staff culture in a school?
Staff culture is the mass of habits and beliefs among staff in the school.
It’s what’s normal, rather than what leaders see.
It’s the lived reality: what staff say when they talk with each other, with friends or family about what it feels like to be a part of the place.
It’s varied, too. It differs for subject departments, for office staff, for catering staff, for site staff. There are schools within schools. Some tend to be more neglected by us as school leaders than others.
Why does it matter?
It matters for retention: it can reduce attrition and preserve vital tacit knowledge for the school.
It matters for learning: chronic attrition harms student achievement.
In schools, nothing is more important than our people.
How might school leaders understand staff culture?
If school improvement is knowledge building, what do we as school leaders most need to know about staff culture?
Tom Rees, Ambition Institute’s Executive Director, signposted me to some of the research.
One synthesis of two decades of school research suggests that staff culture affects retention, and that a staff climate of trust, teamwork and learning produces positive staff culture and school outcomes.
Another review of four decades of school climate research finds that climate includes norms and relationships that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe and contributing.
Researchers Johnson, Kraft and Papy also find that school climate matters for teachers staying, improving, and succeeding. They ask: what elements of the school environment matter most? They find that a supportive organisational culture, the headteacher’s leadership, colleague relationships and collegial interactions matter more than facilities and resources.
School leadership researchers Sebastian, Allensworth and Huang find that empowering staff to wield greater influence over school policy and school learning climate can be effective. Teacher involvement can help.
How might school leaders influence staff culture?
How can we bring the best out of each other? How can we develop ourselves to build trust whilst also challenging each other? especially as in schools, often, the truth doesn’t rise to the top? How can we all build great team spirit together? How can we learn from mistakes, setbacks and failures? How can school leaders develop trusting relationships while facing up to difficulties in their school and helping staff to do the same?
Reflecting on summaries of multiple decades of research and on observations from multiple decades of studying, working in and visiting some of the best schools in the country, school leaders who have positive, lasting impacts on staff culture seem to me to share these practices:
They involve all staff in thinking about how best to improve the school, inviting honest upward feedback.
They create clarity, cohesion and congruence among staff (including office, site and catering staff) on the school’s top priorities and habits, partly by overcommunicating, keeping banging the drum, and getting to critical mass!
They create psychological safety for staff to share and admit struggles, mistakes and knowledge gaps, leading by example.
They have direct conversations to understand more about concerns they sense, and resolve shared ways forward swiftly.
They create esprit de corps, bringing people together through shared, heart-warming moments like meals and celebrations.
To be honest, I have not yet managed to do all of these in my own leadership!
To test these out, here are six sets of questions to try asking of ourselves as school leaders.
How can we help all staff to understand the school’s top priorities and key behaviours?
How can we unify staff on our core beliefs, perhaps by choosing deliberate mantras to keep returning to?
How can we best involve staff in the school’s quest to improve?
How can we invite and encourage honest upward feedback and admit and share SLT blind spots?
How can we shield ourselves from nonsense and get rid of low-impact workload?
How can we show bravery, honesty and openness in team talks to show others it’s ok to be honest, brave and vulnerable too? How can we share our mistakes, struggles, failures, foibles and areas of low (or no!) expertise?
How can we make everyone feel psychologically safe enough to be honest and direct in challenging what needs to be challenged and giving each other feedback?
How can we ensure our vital decisions and interactions live up to our values?
How can we get better at having direct conversations with honesty, clarity, kindness and openness?
How can we develop esprit de corps through staff celebrations and meals?
How can we cultivate trust, encouragement, appreciation, affirmation and support?
How can we best learn from and with each other?
How can we organise the sharing of the most useful examples of excellence and positive impact?
One frontier for us as a teaching profession is working out what knowledge matters most.
What do school leaders most need to know about staff culture?
Testing out these concepts may be a start.
Clarity: get all staff clear on exactly what to focus on.
Involvement: invest all staff in improving the school.
Safety: create psychological safety.
Conversations: model and teach staff how to have better conversations.
Rapport: create esprit de corps!
Learning: help staff learn the best stuff from each other.
Ultimately though, staff culture is interconnected with other challenges school leaders face: how best to think about school improvement, pupil behaviour, curriculum and CPD.
Still, knowing more about which core concepts count most within and across these areas is a promising avenue for improving our school leadership.