Interested in really improving your school? Then focus on cultivating a culture of excellence.While a positive culture is intangible, it is also essential and tied to significant impacts on academic, behavioral, and social-​emotional outcomes for students. My experience as a high school principal has shown me that when attention is given to creating and sustaining a positive school culture, a school can yield dramatic results in all other reform initiatives. 

Specifically, I have seen faculty and staff thrive when immersed in a positive school climate. Teachers are more willing to implement new curricula and interventions when they perceive that they work in a positive school culture. Schools with positive cultures value diversity; encourage shared experiences and purpose; promote transparent and unbiased norms and expectations; and provide opportunities for growth and achievement.

These practical strategies have proven successful in raising the academic performance of our students and increasing the morale of our faculty and staff, resulting in a highly collaborative and positive school community.

Celebrate “Purple Cows”

Let’s be clear: School cultures don’t happen by accident. 

The best approach to developing a culture is to recruit, attract, and retain the highest-quality educators possible who meet the profile of the school you envision. While no recruiting and employment process is perfect, there are some key qualities that I look for when hiring a new teacher. These characteristics are not the only factors influencing the hiring of a candidate, but in my experience, these traits are commonly found in the best and brightest teachers:

A Positive Attitude: An educator with a positive attitude inspires students to look at the world in the same way. Positivity and enthusiasm are two of the most desirable traits I seek in educators.

Good Communication Skills: A teacher’s job is to discuss key concepts and explain them in more than one way so that visual, hands-on, and sensory learners all understand the idea and know how to apply it to future problems. To achieve this goal, the teacher must be able to communicate clearly and effectively.

A Forgiving Heart: Students make mistakes, in both behavior and schoolwork. A teacher must be able to move forward and allow a student to grow.

Brilliance in Their Subject Area: A highly qualified teacher is one who understands his or her subject area inside and out and who has educational and real-world experience. The teacher should be able to apply concepts in their certification area, offer students real-life examples, and demonstrate how students can apply what they learn to the everyday world.

An Engaging Personality: Engagement increases comprehension and retention. I seek educators who can present content in a variety of engaging, creative, and entertaining ways. If they are responsible for holding students’ attention and igniting their enthusiasm for learning, then a candidate should do the same for me in an interview. 

When excellence is spotted in my school, we shout it from the rooftops and share it with as many stakeholders as possible. We want the witnessed behavior or actions to become replicated so frequently that they eventually become the new norm and raise the expectations for others.

One way we nurture this excellence is through The Purple Cow Program, inspired by Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable. It was developed to reward those teachers who inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities and who possess high energy and enthusiasm for their work.

To earn a Purple Cow award, the teacher must be nominated by his or her colleagues. If chosen as a winner, the educator receives outrageous and humorous prizes. This peer-to-peer recognition program helps us celebrate and cultivate the success of our teachers. And because it is validation coming from a colleague, the reward is much greater than the small trinkets that accompany the monthly Purple Cow prize. The Purple Cow Program helps to recognize and honor the remarkable contributions of our employees. It also serves to inspire and motivate future and current teachers and staff, while giving our school an avenue to share the exemplary practices of our teachers.

Celebrating the success of our teachers also includes leveraging social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, and online blogs to highlight innovative instructional practices our teachers use to motivate and engage our students. These digital resources are a powerful way to promote and sustain excellence. Faculty members are frequently reminded of what is expected and modeled in our classrooms. The objective of The Purple Cow Program and our social media tools is for effective and exemplary practices and behaviors to eventually become an expectation for everyone. 

There is a saying: “What gets monitored gets done.” Perhaps more relevant in our technology-rich world is, “What gets shared and celebrated gets replicated.” 

Model Change, Take Risks, Dance Periodically 

The merit of risk-taking has been acknowledged for years by educational leaders and researchers alike. When risk-taking is discussed in educational circles, it often centers on the students’ risks. Discussion centers on their risky, adolescent behavior and temptations, or it develops into discussions about getting students to take academic risks in the classroom. If we, as principals, feel that failure is an important component of innovation, we must foster a culture of risk-taking among our faculty and staff and model it ourselves. 

So how can principals foster a culture of risk-taking? Here are a few ideas that have facilitated a risk-taking culture at St. John Vianney High School:

School leaders should model risk-taking. How willing are you to go outside your own comfort zone? In the past four years, I’ve dressed as Rudolph and the Gingerbread Man for our Cocoa and Cram Final Exam session. I’ve brought eye blackener and bandanas for my faculty (and saw to it that they wore them) for our “Teach Like a Pirate” day. I’ve taught educators in my school the Cupid Shuffle and the Wobble, and danced with them on stage in front of our student body. I’ve even shaved my head when students exceeded my expectations! Leaders who value risk-taking must be willing to risk themselves in order to make it comfortable for others to step outside their comfort zone.

Explicitly carve out time for discussions about innovation, learning, and powerful practices. We created an Academy System that affords our teachers protected time to have dialogue about student- and school-centered issues. It also provides an avenue to learn new ideas and practices in a safe environment. Several late-start Wednesdays—20 of them, in fact—are carved out as protected time for peer-to-peer learning each school year. Our protected time affords the faculty opportunities to view webinars on learning management systems or how to “flip their classroom.” It produced a mini Edcamp where teachers could attend multiple learning sessions where peers shared powerful instructional practices. 

Protected professional development time also provided a unique opportunity for us to develop and roll-out our nationally recognized Vianney Learning 2.0 program. Vianney 2.0 is an in-house professional development approach based on the ideas of Helene Blower that center on discovery, investigation, and play. Believing that professional development is most powerful when it draws upon the strengths and collaboration of our teaching community, we created the program around conversations. Participants were given a series of investigations that asked them to learn, do, and reflect on cultural materials they found online.

Ask people specifically what they are afraid of, and work through the fear with them. Different people have different fears that make them risk averse. By knowing their fears, you can help your teachers work through the issues to accomplish bigger and better things! Conversations centered on fears and risk do not happen haphazardly. 

In order to make people feel comfortable, a leader must take the time (often a lot of time) to develop relationships that help people grow and improve. I take the time to meet with my teachers in informal capacities as much as I do in formal capacities. Morning workroom chats about pop culture or sporting events, lunchroom laughter about everyday happenings, hallway conversations about my staff’s own children’s progress in school or family outings, even mounting a bicycle for a long road ride or running a half marathon provides opportunities to build rapport with faculty. Those efforts ultimately make my open-door policy not just a management technique, but an active, powerful practice that helps eliminate the invisible barrier that often unintentionally exists between administration and faculty. 

A transformed school culture is not won through good intentions and inspiring speakers. It is gained through diligent work in the trenches—expecting excellence daily and designing experiences that challenge, encourage, and uplift good people to recognize the greatness within them. If you’re a school principal serious about tackling important school reform initiatives such as improving academic curriculum, instruction, supervision, and governance, begin by examining your school culture.  

Tim Dilg is principal of St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis, MO. He was named the 2015 Principal of the Year by the St. Louis Association of Principals and was one of seven educators in the country to receive the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) Educational Excellence Award.