Do One Thing Today to Help Build a Positive School Culture

By Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

November/December 2010 Link Lines

A positive climate that supports student achievement is one of the many characteristics of effective school leaders (Cotton, 2003; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005).  What can a school leader do to nurture a positive school culture? Kouzes and Posner (2007) have identified five practices of highly effective leaders. They found that exemplary leaders:

  • model the way,
  • inspire a shared vision,
  • challenge the process,
  • enable others to act, and
  • encourage the heart. (p. 14)

Two of these practices, modeling the way and encouraging the heart, provide opportunities for school leaders to engage in visible behaviors that support a positive school culture.  For example, leaders who “model the way” are clear about their values and make sure that shared values are understood and communicated. Leaders who model the way also demonstrate the behaviors that they expect from others.  Indeed, Kouzes and Posner (2007) note that “leaders’ deeds are far more important than their words when one wants to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say” (p. 16). To model the way in schools, leaders might directly teach students on a regular basis to demonstrate their commitment to quality instruction.

Another way leaders nurture a positive climate is by “encouraging the hearts” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007) of the people they lead. Leaders who encourage the heart “know that celebrations and rituals, when done with authenticity and from the heart, build a strong sense of collective identity and community spirit …” (Kouzes & Posner, p. 23).  Likewise, leaders who encourage the heart hold high expectations for and believe in the people who work for them. In turn, those who work for leaders who encourage the heart are “spurred on by their leaders’ high expectations and encouragement; they develop the self-confidence, courage, and volition to live up to their leaders’ expectations” (Kouzes & Posner, p. 286).

Reflecting upon the following questions, based upon the work of Kouzes and Posner (2003), can help school leaders determine areas of personal strength and areas for further exploration.

Model the Way

  • Do I demonstrate what I expect from others?
  • Do I build consensus around shared values and do I ensure that those I work with follow our shared values and standards?
  • Do I follow through and do what I promise I will do?
  • Do I ask for feedback from others on how my actions impact others?
  • Do I know what my personal philosophy of leadership is? (Kouzes & Posner, 2003, p. 11)

Encourage the Heart

  • Do I recognize people when they do a good job and reward those who contribute to the success of our school?
  • Do I publically recognize those who show outstanding commitment to our shared values?
  • Do I make sure that the people I work with know that I am confident in their abilities?
  • Do we celebrate accomplishments? (Kouzes & Posner, 2003, p.11)

Kouzes and Posner (2007) note that “leadership is not about personality; it’s about behavior” (p. 15).  School leaders who look for opportunities to model the way and encourage the heart of both teachers and students demonstrate behaviors that foster a positive school climate. What will you do today to foster a positive learning environment?

For more information on leadership, visit Kouzes and Posner’s website at  and the School Leadership Institute at the College of William and Mary School of Education at To hear a podcast by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) on the skills that principals need in order to lead school reform efforts, visit



Cotton, K. (2003). Principals and student achievement: What the research says. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003). Leadership practices inventory:  Participant’s workbook (3rd ed.). San Francisco:  Pfeiffer.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Marzano, R. J., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. A. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.