Understanding Our Classroom Culture

Within each and every school culture can be seen, felt and heard.

Walking into any staffroom, classroom or building provides a unique insight into the workings of the various individuals, teams, and community.

How people interact, move through the community, engage in learning and see themselves is affected and influenced by the culture they are in, as are the outcomes we wish to see within our learning communities.

When we consider the impact of school culture on “outcomes”, we’re talking about a real and lasting impact that not only occurs every single day, it builds on itself.

Every single day.

OMG. TOTES AMAZEBALLS. Or, whatever, yeah, I guess that’s pretty incredible.

So, if culture is so important (and from the looks of myLinkedIn feed it certainly is getting thrown around by people more than the last liquorice jellybeans in a packet) what is it?

Chris Argyris, Professor of Education and Organisational Behaviour Emeritus at Harvard University, offers a definition that is simple and powerful:

Culture is what is, what exists, how things are done, how things should be done or why things are done the way they are.

Yep. There it is.

Within our classroom or school culture lie some deeply entrenched things. Specifically, the values, assumptions and symbols of us as a teacher and community.

Anyone who is new to a school or organisation knows this. That moment when you see, think or experience something and you think to yourself,

“Why the hell are they doing that?”.

“Wait. What? I have no idea what they’re talking about”.

“That’s not really living up to that fancy mission statement over there on the wall”.

“Why does everyone love that wild dog so much?”

(Truth be told, after my time at that school I discovered it was a bloody great dog, albeit wild, but still great).

Values. Oh, yeah, they’re…um…

Values can be difficult to identify as they are the invisible parts of culture.

We see them emerge physically through our behaviours or what we choose to focus our attention, time and energy on. Do we acknowledge and applaud kindness, compassion or creativity? Is what we truly focus on grades, effort or learning?

Consider your team, would the majority of their eyes roll as someone asks to clarify what has just been discussed, are people consistently turning up on time, early or late to professional learning meetings? Or, is student learning a central point of discussions within teams (and actually present during the discussions).

How we act, what we choose to do and keep our attention on shows what we value or believe to be important.

Assumptions & Symbols. . .

Assumptions are those unconscious beliefs often taken for granted by those within a community.

Obvious assumptions might be that everyone understands acronyms being thrown around. As teachers, we love acronyms: PLT, PLC, YARC, IEP, ILP, GEP, VCE, SAC, WWJD.

Okay, truth be told that last one was What Would Jesus Do.

BUT, there’s an assumption you know who Jesus was, what he symbolises and the overall mission and history of the Church. Or you might just know The Golden Rule.

Symbols are often the most visible and experienced parts of school culture. The way people speak to each other, the items, objects or images we choose to hold in high regard, and, critically, the structures we create in an organisation.

Think trophy cabinets: are they all for sport, or a mixture of endeavours? Or the work or learning examples up around our classrooms and schools. What is that they stand for to us or our students?

Putting on a leadership hat: are there scheduled times that allow teams to meet together? Is time provided to middle leaders to actually enact the vision the leaders keep talking about?

Back to You

Consider your classroom or school. How much time do students have to genuinely show and deepen their understanding? Does every student have the necessary materials to succeed in their learning? (And have they been given the time and skills to use these effectively?)

If you had to describe the culture within your class, team or school, what would you say about your values, assumptions or symbols?

If you’re not sure, that’s okay. At least you’re starting to consider and reflect.

Thinking big picture like this can sometimes be daunting, so make it smaller and easier to action. Zoom right in on specific moments of your teaching day or team meetings. Beginnings are always great moments that can capture our culture.

What does the start to the day say to your students? As they enter are you well away from them all, eyes down on your computer? Are you there seeing them, making eye contact and greeting them with a smile, ready for the day? Or, are you focusing more on putting the final spoonful of Nestle Instablend #93 in the staffroom? How we interact and are present in our rooms speak volumes to our students, even before the first lesson has begun.

Where we choose to point our energy, time and attention shows what we value. How we act, what we choose to do and symbols we hold up high create our culture. The question is, what culture is it that you want to create or strengthen?

What works for you? Why not share below?

Post a comment or share the love 😉

Enjoyed this post?

Join hundreds of teachers in getting our best teaching tips, ideas and posts as soon as they’re written. We’d love to have you.


Leave a Reply