For 16 years, I heard the same complaints about the climate and culture of my rural, high-achieving high school. Most of these negative comments came from teachers and staff who bemoaned the fact that there’s too much on everyone’s plate, that state mandates are making jobs harder, and that the administration has changed too many times. All of these explanations are valid.

Studies show that the climate and culture of a school is linked to adults and that a poor climate and culture for the adult leaders has a direct effect on student performance. According to “Teacher Mental Health, School Climate, Inclusive Education, and Student Learning: A Review” by Christine Gray, Gabrielle Wilcox, and David Nordstokke, “Positive school climate also has the potential to contribute to teacher mental health and to provide an optimal environment to support student learning and growth.” This is the goal behind any effort at improving school culture and climate.

As the associate principal of State College Area High School in Pennsylvania, a piece of the responsibility for making culture and climate changes rested on my shoulders. However, it was our principal, Curtis Johnson, who determined that 2016 was the final year of complaining; it was time to get to the heart of the matter. His approach was unconventional, bold, and painful. But as the saying goes: “No pain and no risk—no change.” 

Johnson’s approach took on three critical steps that, in less than a year, have begun to change the culture and climate at our high school of 2,300 students (and more than 200 staff) from negative to positive. Those three steps included getting and taking critical feedback about why the culture was negative, creating a unified administrative team, and cultivating teacher leadership to create ownership. 

No Pain, No Gain

I have always believed that it’s best to get the painful part of change over with so you can move on to the good stuff, and this is exactly how we began. The first step of fixing the negative culture meant getting the perspectives of the teachers to find out why things were not good. Combining that need with the desire to create buy-in and teacher leadership, Johnson assembled a group of teachers he knew would be honest and forthright about the school’s culture issues, and he listened to their perspectives. From there, he supported this group of teacher leaders to get the faculty into discussions (minus the administrative team) to bring the issues to the surface. Using a survey and small group discussions, the faculty created a document that listed the problems they believed were causing the poor climate and culture. Once the discussions took place and the data was assembled, Johnson and his team of one associate principal and three assistant principals sat down together and went through every issue. This was where the “painful” part became a reality.

Faculty Feedback

Feedback from the faculty was bold, blunt, accusatory, and often true. It was a personally painful process sitting together and absorbing the brutal honesty of the people who we all work with each day. As a faculty, we felt like we were at fault, but as hard as it was, we had to admit that there was room for big improvement. After digesting the information and letting time ease the sting of reality, the team set to work. We started by arranging the issues according to actionable changes. After hours of discussion and brainstorming, we settled on the following areas for immediate improvement:

  • Visibility. Teachers felt like they never saw the administrators. So, the principals agreed they would be in the halls between classes and at the beginning and end of the day. This sounds simple; however, it had to be balanced with the complaint that sometimes teachers couldn’t find us in our offices when they needed us.
  • Communications. Teachers were frustrated with blanket “scolding” done through email or in faculty meetings. Administrators vowed they would send out blanket emails only when the majority of the faculty needed a reminder; otherwise, they would go directly to the people who were in need of a firmer reminder. 
  • Relationships. The teachers felt like they were unknown by some of the administrators. We are currently a two-building high school campus, and it was true that it was hard to get to know those in the other building. To solve this, we began by having our technology people make us a faculty/staff picture album that scrolls across our computers to help us put faces to names. We hired more than 30 new people last year, so this was a way for everyone to learn new faces. With the suggestion of one of our teachers, we created a “One State” committee to create social events for the full faculty and staff. We also agreed to spend extra time in the halls having personal conversations with all members of the school. 

As I am writing these things, they appear, perhaps, a bit trivial. It seems silly that we weren’t doing them before, but as any principal knows, every minute of every day is important. “Simple” seems to be what goes out the window when the schedule gets packed. We now realize that simple changes are everything! By the end of September, we could already see and feel a difference in our school culture. Teachers were saying, “It’s nice to see you all more.” They have told us that it has been one of the most upbeat and encouraging starts to a year that they remember. (And this is no easy feat, considering we’re in the middle of a building construction project where everyone is misplaced or packed in small spaces and sharing space.) The culture is changing.

One State

I remember thinking that Johnson was making a mistake in giving power to the negative complaints when he hatched this plan. I was wrong. The faculty needed to see and hear our hearts and know that we were willing to face difficult feedback to bring us all together as “one state.” We have more work to do, and things aren’t perfect. However, our principal was bold enough to take feedback that we knew would hurt, lead his team to make changes together, and use his teacher leaders to cultivate ownership in the process of making positive changes in the climate and culture of one high school. 

Kathy Pechtold is the associate principal of State College Area High School in Pennsylvania, where she has served as a teacher, dean of students, and assistant principal prior to her current role.

Making It Work

Three things principals can do to improve the culture and climate at their schools:

  • Build a strong team that works together. But, be prepared to take tough feedback and empower teacher leaders.
  • Build solid relationships. Don’t let teachers feel they are “unknown.” Make an effort to greet and talk with each person as often as you can, even though it takes time.
  • Get back to the simple steps. Be visible by building culture issues into your schedule. Avoid sending blanket emails when you only need to address specific individuals. Remember, face-to-face interaction is often best.