Article Review: How Leaders Influence the Culture of Schools
by Kent D. Peterson and Terrence E. Deal
Unfortunately, some schools have, over time, becomes unproductive and toxic. These are schools where staffs are extremely fragmented, where the purpose of serving students has been lost to the goal of serving adults (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 28).
What is most striking about this article by Deal & Peterson (1998) is the painful accuracy of their description of toxic cultures found in schools. The authors believe that even good schools have toxic subcultures that work to sabotage collegial improvement. The school in which I work is not as far gone as the school cited in the article but I feel that we have yet a ways to go before we can consider our school to have the positive cultural patterns as described by Deal & Peterson (1998).
The term school culture has been written about extensively over the past few years. The concept of school culture can be quite vague and confusing for readers who interpret the meaning differently. Deal & Peterson (1998) contribute to field of knowledge by beginning the article with defining the term clearly for their readers. The authors define school culture as being:
. . .everything that goes on in schools: how staff dress, what they talk about, their willingness to change, the practice of instruction and the emphasis given student and faculty learning . . . Culture is the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 28).
This definition is very workable because it takes into account the physical atmosphere of the school as well as the internal mental attitudes of those inside. The definition of culture is no longer a vague concept; rather, readers can easily pinpoint various elements within their school that contribute the culture that is felt.
In many research papers, negative school culture has been cited as contributing to the dropout factor of students; by identifying the weaker areas of our cultural patterns, perhaps teachers at our school can help to decrease the number of Inuit students who leave school early due to negative feelings about the school environment.
Schools also deal with issues raised about staff and student morale. By reading the description of a toxic culture in Deal & Peterson (1998) it is obvious that when negativity reigns it ruin chances of positive learning experiences for both teacher and student. Deal & Peterson (1998) believe that it is the role of school leaders to create a "web of influence (that) binds the school together and makes it special" (p.28). Without this supportive web, staff morale will decrease, reforms will fail and students' achievement will lower (Deal & Peterson, 1998).
Deal & Peterson (1998) recognize that school leaders can come from all levels: principals, teachers, parents and students. This is important because it takes many people to raise the culture of the school from toxic to productive; each person involved has essential skills in expert areas that can be used advantageously. Deal & Peterson (1998) provide a list of opportunities to improving positive cultures where all leaders can contribute. Schools that have positive cultures are those 1) that have a shared sense of purpose or vision amongst staff members, 2) that have underlying norms of hard work, improvement and collegiality, 3) that celebrate student achievement, teacher creativity, and parental commitment, 4) that have a social web of information, support and history created by a network of storytellers and local heroes from the community (Deal & Peterson, 1998).
School leaders have to pay attention to the symbolic side of the school, the vision and dreams, the rituals and celebrations (Deal & Peterson, 1998). The authors cite one school that values the rituals and history of its Navajo students by building the school based on the four directions of Navajo beliefs and decorating the walls with Navajo weavings. The Inuit community in which I teach has promoted Inuit culture in the school by donating artifacts and tools to the school museum; the walls are filled with Inuit pictures and Inuktitut language despite there being a high number of non-Native teachers on staff. Valuing the symbolic side of the school works to heighten the positive culture for the students.
Finally, Deal & Peterson (1998) discuss three important things that school leaders do when shaping culture. School leaders must "read the culture" (p. 30) by taking in the history and present situation. Leaders "uncover and articulate core values" (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 30) by identifying aspects of the culture that support student-centred learning. Leaders "fashion a positive context" (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 30) by strengthening positive elements and changing negative ones.
School leaders do these things by communicating core values, honouring and recognizing those who serve, observing rituals and traditions, recognizing heroes, speaking of the deeper mission, celebrating achievements and preserving the focus on students (Deal & Peterson, 1998). These suggestions are without a doubt the most valuable part of the entire article. Members of any type of culture can benefit from having leaders who follow these important suggestions and strive to make the culture productive.
Leaders who are motivated to improve school culture are far more likely to take the suggestions by Deal & Peterson (1998) to heart. The question remains: How can we motivate teachers to work towards improvement? How does one encourage teachers to be involved in activities like Curriculum Conversations, clap outs, and Teachers as Readers? (Deal & Peterson,1998). Teachers must be able to sense a need for change and this need must come from within rather than from without. Perhaps, this is the hardest step in the journey to creating a positive school culture; when there is a sense of uncaring, a toxic culture reigns.
This article is revealing for those of us who do want to make positive changes to our school culture and become the type of leader that Deal & Peterson (1998) describe. It directs readers to various ways where improvement can be made by individual leaders and in situations school-wide. Schools will suffer until leaders can return the goal of serving back to our students.
Deal, T.E. & Peterson, K.D. (1998) How leaders influence the culture of schools. Educational Leadership 56, (1), 28 - 30.