The Role of the Principal in Shaping School Culture


Examine the role of the principal in shaping school culture and discuss the extent to which school culture determines school effectiveness.

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‘Tasks of principals are multifaceted and complex”

(Anderson, 2008)

The role of the principal is important for schools to operate effectively and efficiently. In today’s society the role of the principal ranges from the simple to the complex. The Principal is not only a leader, but should be able to take up different roles in the school environment. The various roles encompass dealing with both the teaching staff and students. Principals have to help students integrate with society, help the school as an institution to merge with other institutions such as the family, and to further help develop better students/individuals/citizens through the association with Parent Teachers Associations (Anderson, 2008). The principal therefore needs to shape a school culture that would assist him or her to accomplish the tasks needed to create an effective school.

Generally, defined culture is “a way of life,” or “the way we do things around here” (Barth, 2007). However, when one takes a look at organizations Robbin & Judge (2011), define culture as a system of shared meaning held by members, which distinguishes the organization from other organizations.” A school’s culture is the ‘complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions, and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization’ (Barth as cited in Fullan 2007). Lunenburg & Ornstein (2008) also continues and defines culture as “shared philosophies, ideologies, beliefs, feelings, assumptions, expectations, attitudes, norms and values (p.69)”

It incorporates rituals and symbols that schools identify with and is more concerned with the social rather than the technical aspect of schools. Consequently, the principal as the leader of the school has several roles to perform in order to shape the school’s culture and needs to ensure that his or her staff are ‘on board’ to ensure that the culture is supported, maintained and transmitted (Sahin, 2011). The culture can be viewed as a system of shared purpose that hold a unit together and gives it a unique identity which can be either positive or negative (DuPont, 2009). Every school has a culture and it is such cultures, which determines schools’ effectiveness. Different individuals can contribute to the culture of the school however, Alkire (1995) suggests that the principal is in the key position to shape the schools’ culture.

The definition for culture varies but the elements of cultures are often times viewed as similar. These elements include clear vision and strong core values, rituals and ceremonies, histories and stories (Philosophies), norms and rules, and physical environment (Alkire, 1995; Peterson, and Deal, 1998; Lunenburg & Ornstein, 2008;DuPont, 2009). The principal has to have a clear vision of what type of school’s culture he or she wants to promote. The principal cannot create a school culture by himself ,therefore, he or she must communicate the vision to the staff (foot soldiers) who would assist in promoting a positive culture (Anderson, 2008). A school’s culture is developed as a result of the interaction between members of the school. In the process of interaction, members exemplify certain behaviours, use certain language, terminology, and participate in certain rituals and ceremonies that come to be regarded as the ‘way we do things around here’ behaviour of the particular school (Alkire, 1995). Moreover, as the standards of behaviour becomes established through the school heros, rites and rituals and communication networks, the ‘culture’ of the institution is formed.

There are institutions which have strong culture and some where there is weak or toxic cultures. Peterson and Deal (1998) characterises schools with a toxic culture as having staff who are fragmented and where negative values are dominant. On the other hand schools with a strong positive culture are characterised by staff who share a sense of purpose and high expectations of students. Principals must ensure that their school has a strong culture because a school’s culture to a large extent determines it’s effectiveness. There are several roles that the principal can perform to shape the school’s culture. These include modelling and communicating core values, honouring and recognising individuals who are hard workers, observing rituals and traditions and recounting stories and eloquently speaking of the deeper mission of the school and the artifacts and architecture (Alkire, 1995;Peterson, & Deal, 1998; & Sahin 2011).

One of the most important role of the principal when shaping the schools’ culture is to model core values (Sahin, 2011). The principal has to act in a certain way that would demonstrate to teachers and students what values and belief are of most importance to the school. A typical example is that a principal who allows teachers and students to be part of the decision making process thus developing a culture of collegiality. This participatory style will foster a strong culture within the organisation which in turn will improve the relationship between the teachers and principal. Having teachers participate in decision making progress ensure that the teachers are committed to achieving high educational outcomes. Moreover the student teacher relationship will also be enhance because the student will realise that the teachers are empowered to perform certain duties and thus ensuring mutal respect. Ubben, Hughes, & Norris (2007) supports this view by highlighting that strong school cultures have better motivated teachers. Moreover, the teachers would also work harder whereby they will have more success with students performance. Therefore, the principal has to provide the environment or the framework for establishing a positive culture. The school’s culture ‘affects principal effectiveness,teachers and students outcomes. Principals must model behaviours consistent with the school’s vision and develop a clear purpose in the school so that student achievement can improve (Halawah, 2005).’

Secondly, the principal shapes the school culture by communicating core values to the staff and students. DuPont, (2009) emphasises that communication is important because it ensures that core values and beliefs are widely shared and transmitted to each member of staff which enable them to work towards the common goals. It must be highlighted that the principal cannot promote a school culture by him or her self, therefore he or she needs to communciate the core values and vision verbally or even non-verbally to establish unity or shared purpose among teachers, students and parents. Students achievement is greatest when teachers and principals work together (Halawah, 2005). For example, principal must have staff briefing to get teachers involved in activities punctuality, low absenteeism and high expectations of student’s performance which is geared towards a strong positive culture. For the students, the principal can set up student counsels and assemblies where they can provide ideas towards discipline and good conduct (Busher & Barker 2003). Non-verbally the principal can ensure that he or she is always on time at school and school functions, In this way the principal has communicated to staff, parents and students the value of being on punctuality.

Another role a principal must perform in shaping school culture is to establish avenues for allocation of resources, rewards and recognition. The principal can then apply strategies that sybolically build commitment to the appropriate attitude and behaviour he or she hopes to achieve (Alkire, 1995). For instance, if the princpal wants the school to exhibit a culture that expect high performances in sports, then resources such as a gym and sporting equipment must be a priority. Secondly, students who perform well at sporting events must be given a token or monetary contribution as a reward for examplary behavior. Furthermore, during assemblies and speech night these students must be recongnized at the events. These activities would act as a means of shaping the culture of the school. The stakeholders and community members will view the activities and get the message that the school is one that has high standard. The students within the school who observe others being awarded for exemplary behaviours will want to emulate the behaviors thus pomoting a positive school culture.

In addition, principals can also observe rituals and traditions and recount stories (histories) in order to shape a schools’ culture. The principal can allow sessions in which the teachers and students relate stories of past events. These pass events can focus on the achievement and success of the institution. DuPont, (2009) supports this practice when she purports that the history of the school is important in shaping a schools culture because individuals must learn the past in order to understand the future. The way the principal dealt with pass conflict, celebration,tragedies and success will give newcomers an idea of the ‘way things are done around here’ (Peterson, & Deal, 1998). The rituals of a school are routine that becomes linked to the school purpose and mission (DuPont, 2009). DuPont (2009) continue to emphasise that principals observe rituals because it a way of connecting and teaching about the schools culture to all stakeholders. When utilized in the right way rituals becomes embedded and supports the school’s heart and soul (Peterson, & Deal, 1998). These activites will contribute to a strong positive culture which in turn can lead to an effective school. A typical example of a ritual is the way student leave and enter classrooms in an orderly manner. After repeat performance in the morning at lunch time and in the evening, this act becomes a ritual which shape a culture that shows the value of discipline and order.

Having an effective school is essential for learning to take place. Ubben et al (2007), define an effective school as one that is ‘achieving high and equitable levels of student learning (p 67).’ At such institutions all students learn essential knownledge, concepts and skills needed for them to attain a higher education. On the other hand, Lunenburg and Ornstein (2008) suggest that effective schools are judged largely based on students outcomes on standardized tests in reading and mathematics. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operate Development posits that effective schools ‘promote the progress of its students in their social, emotional and instructional level taking into account factors such as socioeconomic and their previous level of learning (p 4).’

The moral and disciplinary aspect of students must also be addressed. Therefore, even though the definition for effective schools may vary, there are several characteristics of effective schools that various researchers agree upon (Alkire, 1995;Ubben, Hughes, & Norris, 2007;Lunenburg & Ornstein, 2008; Shannon and Bylsma, 2007). These include characteristics such as a clear school mission, high standards and expectations for all students’ success, frequent monitoring student progress, safe and orderly environment, and effective school leadership, which are all directly linked to elements of school culture. Hallinger and Murphy (1985) highlight that in order for the principal to promote the school culture he or she must perform the function of promoting instructional time, provide incentives for learning and teaching promote professional development, and maintaining a high present. When examined closely it is evident that there is a strong positive correlation between schools culture and school effectiveness.

One of the factors that exhibits a strong correlation to school effectiveness is that of having a clear school mission (Ubben et al 2007). This factor is also paramount to having a positive school culture. Each member of the school must have a clear idea of what the school hope to achieve and their role in getting the job done. Peterson and Deal (1998) provide evidence of how having a clear mission can determine a school effectiveness. At the school where the research was done all staff members had a shared sense of purpose in terms of valuing and caring for its students which each faculty member worked towards. The students later testified to how having caring teacher had an impact on their academic achievement. One student claimed that without the invention of the teachers he would not have completed high school or gotten the grades he got. In this instance it showed how a focus in the right direction can determine the achievement and learning outcome of students.

Another way that culture contributes to school effectiveness is by promoting high expectation for success. Teachers at effective schools demonstrate to students that they can all obtain mastery of essential content area. In some cases, a student may encounter socio-economic problems but at an institution where principals and teachers display their belief in the student these barriers may be overcomed (Shannon & Bylsma, 2007). The positive and supportive attitude of the teacher encourages the students to perform. DuPont (2009) supports this view and states that staff and students need to be positive and believe they can achieve set goals and by this positve attitude success will be achieved.

There are other characteristics that Shannon and Bylsma (2007) suggest demarcates effective schools. These include curriculum, instruction and assessments aligned with state standards, a high level of family and community involvement, focused professional development, a supportive learning environment, and high levels of collaboration and communication. There are elements of culture here, which suggest that in every aspect of effective schools, culture is evident. However, there can be instances where the culture that exists in the school makes the school ineffective. Peterson and Deal (1998) posit that even good schools can have toxic subcultures (p 2). The characteristics of toxic school cultures include negative conversations, interactions, and planning. These characters of culture contribute to schools ineffectiveness. Peterson and Deal (1998) continue to highlight the effects of toxic cultures by stating that the stories retold will be ones of failures, and the only heroes that exist would be anti-heroes.

The schools’ culture is a perception by stakeholders of what happens at the institution. Generally, principals would prefer a culture that is strong, positive, and shared by all in order to ensure that student outcomes are of high standard. However, not all school cultures are positive hence, the principal as the key stakeholder has to shape the culture into one that is desirable (Peterson, & Deal, 1998). Culture is multidimensional and comprise of several elements and since the principal cannot shape the culture by him or herself then teachers and students must be part of the process (Alkire, 1995). Alkire (1995) further suggests and Anderson (2008) supports that through the culture of the school the principal has indirect influences on students’ performances and outcomes. Lunenburg & Ornstein, (2008) and Ubben, et al (2007) also purport that school effectiveness is largely determined by student outcome. It can be seen that students outcome are linked to the culture of the school. Finally Anderson (2008) strongly suggest that the instructional role of principals are associated with the increase in student achievement and with the supportive role of the principal trust is developed which in turn leads to effective schools. It must be noted therefore that school culture largely determine school effectiveness.


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