How We Do Business Here: Assessing Your School’s Culture

By Elaine Gould, M.Ed.

September/October 2010 Link Lines

Now is the time for educators to examine and evaluate the school culture in their buildings and to lay the foundation for revitalizing how business is done. School culture can be defined as the "deep patterns of values, beliefs, and traditions that have formed over the course of the school's history" (Renchler, 1992, p. 3). School culture "emphasizes the feeling and current tone of the school, the emotional content of relationships, and the morale of the place.  [It] encompasses the complex elements of values, tradition, and language" of the school (Peterson & Deal, 2010, p. 9). A positive school culture is important because it greatly influences student motivation to learn and academic achievement. Teachers who work in a positive school environment are more productive and report high job satisfaction (Renchler, 1992; Stolp, 1994).

Many aspects of a school's culture (e.g., the curriculum, code of conduct) are apparent, whereas other influences on a school's culture (e.g., behavioral expectations, routines, school values, and traditions) are less obvious and require intentional and clarifying communication (Wren, 1999). Leaders can assess their school's current culture by asking key stakeholders such as teachers, students, support staff, and parents to communicate their perceptions of the school's values, beliefs, and norms. In The Shaping School Culture Fieldbook, Peterson and Deal (2010) recommend the following activities to help facilitate this process:  

  1. Distribute six sticky notes to each school leadership team member and ask them to write one adjective on each that describes the school's culture. Post and organize the sticky notes into themes and then, within theme groups, divide them into positive and negative adjectives. Ask the following questions:

    • What is the meaning of each group of adjectives?
    • On which groups should we focus our attentio
    • Which groups should be modified to reflect the values of the school?
  2. Compare and contrast your school's mission statements from years past. Ask the following questions:
    • What has stayed the same?
    • What has changed
    • What does our current mission statement say about what we value as a school community
    • Does our school's mission statement reflect and clearly state our purpose, and is that purpose clear to all stakeholders?
    • Is our mission statement communicated through our actions, traditions, and words? For example, if academic success for all students is emphasized in the school's mission statement, it would be expected that student achievement would be rewarded, celebrated, and valued by all stakeholders.
  3. Involve parents and students in the process of assessing the school's culture. Invite them to tell stories of a time when they experienced immense success, excitement, or connection with the school. Are the experiences described by the parents and students in line with the mission and purpose of the school?
  4. Allow students to work in groups to create advertisements for their school. As the advertisements are presented, ask students to identify themes and values that are highlighted in the different advertisements. This allows school leaders to develop an understanding of the students' perceptions of the school's culture.
  5. If the walls in your building could talk, what would they say? Walk through the hallways as if you were a newcomer to the school. Ask the following questions:
    • What do you see on the walls and what do they communicate to you?
    • What do you see and hear as you pass the classrooms?
    • What do you sense about the overall feeling of the school? (Peterson & Deal, 2010).

After assessing school culture, the building's leadership can more efficiently determine what is important to stakeholders and what aspects should receive systematic focus and attention. If the attention is focused on what is valued by stakeholders, the leadership can move forward by communicating those values to the school community and developing long-term goals and plans to enrich the existing school culture (Renchler, 1992).

Helpful Link: To learn more about including students in the process of assessing and creating a positive school culture, visit the National Dropout Prevention Center's website and listen to the Solutions Podcast on School Climate Through Students' Eyes.


Peterson, K., & Deal, T. (2010). The shaping school culture fieldbook. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.

Renchler, R. (1992). Student motivation, school culture, and academic achievement: What school leaders can do. Trend & Issues. Retrieved from

Stolp, S. (1994). Leadership for school culture. Clearinghouse on Educational Policy and Management. Retrieved from

Wren, D. (1999).  School culture: Exploring the hidden curriculum. Adolescence.  Retreived from;col1