School culture involves not just teachers and students. It involves office staff and caretakers, parents and other family members, and the surrounding community. It is strongly influenced by the Principal, the school board senior management, and the values of the community that the school serves. A culture that is at odds with the existing basic beliefs of the school staff or the community creates challenges and conflicts; changing these beliefs to change the culture is never easy and takes time and skill.
Cultures can vary widely between schools. Some emphasize compliance and discipline, some critical thinking and self-expression, others collaboration or competition, or emotional well-being, or elite athletics, or accelerated academic progress. A school can isolate itself from or embrace the community, it can welcome or inhibit family involvement, it can encourage staff to work together as a cohesive team or to work independently, it can be hierarchical and autocratic or allow participation and experimentation.
School culture has a significant effect on how the child develops, not only concerning what is learned, but also how to treat others, sense of confidence, level of independence, and emotional and physical well-being.
In some cases, in the name of tradition or competition or exclusivity, a school may tolerate abuse or fostering of a sense that some students should have inherently higher status than others (this is often the case for talented athletes in high profile team sports). In other cases a demoralized school may tolerate neglect or student failure, or a school grounded in a rigid belief system may avoid exploring ideas that might undermine strongly held, but inaccurate, beliefs. While there is near-universal agreement in principle that these sorts of cultures are unacceptable, adherence to these principles can be weakened for short-term benefit. Also there are many differing opinions on the details of what constitutes an ideal school culture. Each opinion can point to supporting research, each uses different ways to measure school success, and few look at the long-term life outcomes of students compared to those students from similar backgrounds who went to schools with different cultures.
Despite these differences, there is a general consensus that an effective school culture should have at least these four characteristics:
- trusting and honest relationship between all members of the school community
- collaborative staff and coordinated approach to learning
- an expectation by the whole school community to maximize every student’s well-being and learning
- a willingness to be open to trying and evaluating new ideas, no matter where the ideas come from