How to Build a Connection Between School Culture and Student Achievement

Principal and Teacher Relationships: Behaviors Impacting Excellence

School Culture and Student AchievementIs there a connection between school culture and student achievement?  The answer is a resounding “yes!”  Anecdotal evidence (Phillips) as well as multiple studies (Brucato, Melton-Shutt, Cunningham) support the notion that the degree to which a school has a healthy school culture directly correlates to the degree to which students achieve academically.

Culture is generally thought of the normative glue that holds a particular school together. –Sergiovanni, 2007

School culture consists of the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors which characterize a school.
-Phillips, 1996

Sergiovanni and Phillips use: “normative glue” and “the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors,” respectively, to describe the “what” of culture.  While these are valid descriptors, ultimately it is not the “what,” rather it is the “who” that is most important.  Culture is all about the adults in the school building; culture and its correlation to academic excellence is about the relationships between the principal (and other administrators) and teachers.  It is their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that create the normative glue.

Principal-teacher relationships are at the heart of culture and their inter-relational connections shape school culture.  Imagine these adults in your school building; allow their faces to flash before your eyes.  As each person appears, can you label them as positive, negative, or toxic? Even without descriptors for each of these labels, you are likely able to apply a label to each face.

To more accurately label the adults in the building, consider the following (very limited) descriptors of positive, negative, and toxic personnel. Positives can be described as: professional, collegial, and open to growth; Negatives can be described as pessimistic, draining, and convey hopelessness; and Toxics can be described as poor or ineffective, accept mediocrity or are complacent, and are gossips and saboteurs.  Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t speaks to the notion of having the “right” people in an organization and writes, “In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes [bold added] than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.”

For the sake of our students and their opportunity to achieve to their potential, we must have the right people in our schools; we must have principals and teachers who are professional, collegial, and open to growth.   There are other authors in the world of school culture research, such as Peterson and Deal who, in their book The Shaping School Culture Fieldbook, offer approaches to healing negative and/or toxic cultures; the reflection questions and suggested actions are provocative and worth consideration.  However, there are schools in which a principal would have to invest too much precious time in attempting to influence Negatives and Toxics, who may never change their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors; they refuse to be “shaped”.  In such cases, courageous, compassionate, and sometimes difficult, conversations must occur.

Effective principals know the state of culture within the school building.  Oftentimes, leaders will assume culture; however, effective leaders ensure “their gut feeling” is aligned with reality and regularly assess school culture in order to: address issues, mitigate factors that detract from a positive culture, or maintain a culture for academic success.    In a three-part, 17-item school culture survey developed and refined by Phillips, Wagner, and Masden-Copas, principals assess those specific school culture factors that impact academic excellence.   Click Here for the survey and directions for administering to teachers. The survey is broken down into three key areas of school culture, summarized here:

  • Professional Collaboration, the degree to which teachers and staff work together on: curriculum, instruction, assessments; school schedules and team planning time; and determining student behavior/discipline codes/policies.
  • Affiliative Collegiality, the degree to which teachers and staff: communicate, celebrate, appreciate one another.
  • Self-determination & Efficacy, the degree to which staff are: empowered to problem solve and make decisions, proactive rather than reactive, and enjoy working at the school.

There is great value in administering the survey, determining which areas are in need of improvement, making intentional steps to improve those areas, and re-assessing to ensure that improvement is actually happening.    Wagner writes, “Relational vitality…is the foundation for a healthy school culture and maximizing student learning.”  What is the status of culture in your school?  What are your next steps in cultivating a culture for academic excellence?


Phillips, G. (1996). Classroom Rituals for At-Risk Learners.  Vancouver, BC: Educserv, British Columbia School Trustees Publishing.

Sergiovanni, T. (2000).  The Lifeworld of Leadership.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wagner, C. (2006). The School Leader’s Tool for Assessing and Improving School Culture. Principal Leadership, pp. 41-44.

Watch the On-Demand Webinar presented by Dr. Susan Abelein, Principal & Teacher Relationships: Behaviors Impacting Excellence. The webinar recording and the presentation slides are now available for FREE !


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