By Danny Steele, EdD, and Todd Whitaker, PhD

School Culture is Made in the Little Moments. And We All Have Those Little Moments Where We Can Make a Difference Every Day.
Principals shape school culture…as do custodians, secretaries, counselors, teachers, bookkeepers, librarians, paraprofessionals, maintenance technicians, resource officers, nurses, registrars, and cafeteria workers. If you work in a school, you make a difference for that school. Everyone contributes to building a strong school culture. And good culture does not result from clever programs; it is created by the adults who care about the students and the school. It is not created through big initiatives; it is created with personal connections. It is created through taking advantage of the little opportunities to create moments of awesomeness. And if you are alert you will discover there are opportunities to be awesome all around you—opportunities to make someone’s day, opportunities to make a difference for students and celebrate colleagues. Building strong school culture is nothing more than making the most of all those small moments.

Not long ago, I remember telling our school custodian some knock-knock jokes. She laughed and that made me feel good—although she may have been laughing more at my silliness than the actual humor of the jokes. But we both had fun with it that day; we both enjoyed the interaction.

I remember a day when a student stopped me as I was walking around, and said, “Hey Dr. Steele, do you have time for a magic trick?” What principal has time for magic tricks? But I stopped…and was thoroughly impressed with his sleight of hand.

Every morning, I am in our cafeteria, helping to supervise students eating breakfast. We have an amazing Child Nutrition Program (CNP) staff, and one of their special talents is making cinnamon rolls. I’m glad to see the lunch ladies every morning, and they seem glad to see me. Several years ago, I made a point to talk to them about how good their cinnamon rolls were. I didn’t think much of the conversation at the time, but I did want them to know that I appreciated them…And their baking talents. The next time they served cinnamon rolls, there was a treat packaged up for me in the window between the kitchen and the serving lines: My very own cinnamon roll, set aside in a container. The sticky note read, “Enjoy, Dr. Steele!” For the last several years, on days when cinnamon rolls are being served, there is a special one waiting for me in the window. If I don’t see it, they will call my attention to it. What a tasty tradition!

So, what do knock-knock jokes, magic tricks, and cinnamon rolls have to do with instructional leadership? What do they have to do with raising student achievement? Nothing, I suppose.

But they have everything to do with culture. They have everything to do with relationships. They have everything to do with building the type of school where students enjoy learning and adults enjoy working. And this is the kind of school where kids and staff members thrive. School culture is not about the big things; it’s about the little things. It’s about the thoughtful gestures —the high-fives, the conversations with students in the hallways, and all the smiles. Don’t ever forget the smiles. And yes, sometimes, it’s about knock-knock jokes, magic tricks, and cinnamon rolls.

The Formal Mission of the School is Only as Strong as the Informal Mission of the Adults Working There.
It is easy to get into a routine. We go to work every day; we teach lessons; we lead faculty meetings; we email parents; we supervise the carpool…the list goes on. We make a million decisions every day, and many of them we are barely aware of. We get bogged down in the minutiae and the mundane. So how do we rise above the grind and stay mindful of why we do what we do?

At the beginning of the school year, our staff members wrote their hopes for our students on the wall outside our main office.  This included our teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, maintenance technician—everyone. These hopes are not for higher test scores or less tardiness. They are not hopes for completed homework or straight As. They are the hopes for inspired teachers to enter the profession. They are the passions that reflect our collective desire to make a difference in the lives of our kids. They are the reasons we come to work. We also asked teachers to write their own professional oath, modeled after the Hippocratic Oath that physicians adhere to. These oaths capture the core values of the teachers and represent their professional commitments to their students and to their colleagues.

Most schools have mission statements, and I think these are a good thing. But more important are the personal mission statements of the adults in the building. It is crucial that leaders find ways to help staff members tap into their core values—to remain mindful of their purpose. After all, schools will never be defined by the mission statement on the wall; they will be defined by what actually goes on in classrooms.

Every School Day is Filled with Unexpected Glitches and Hiccups. The Best Leaders Respond with Poise, Perseverance and a Positive Attitude.
The school assembly went on longer than expected and now the lunch schedule is going to be messed up. A student threw up in the hallway and the custodian is at lunch. Two substitutes did not show up and there are 60 unsupervised students. A parent’s car died in the carpool line and has caused a traffic jam. A teacher forgot to fill out her paperwork for professional leave. If you are a school administrator, you have probably never had a day go as planned. Leaders are confronted with constant challenges and obstacles throughout the day. The best leaders do not let these glitches fluster them, and they certainly do not let them ruin the day. They understand how to prioritize the challenges, and they take the unexpected snafus in stride. When the leader gets stressed, the other adults often get stressed. Conversely, when leaders respond to the challenges of the day with grace and a positive attitude, they help to set the tone for the day. They provide assurance to the other staff members, and they model constructive ways of dealing with adversity.

Remaining “positive” is not about always having a great day or a perfect attitude. We all have rough days. But it is about keeping things in perspective. And it is about an abiding certainty that we can choose to make a difference every day, in spite of the adversity. Tomorrow, we won’t be able to control the weather, the attitudes of the kids, or the number of annoying emails that flood our inbox. But we can control the number of times we smile, the number of high-fives we give, and the energy we bring to work. We actually control a lot!

Reproduced with permission from Essential Truths for Principals by Danny Steele and Todd Whitaker (© Routledge, 2019).

Dr. Danny Steele is Assistant Professor of Instructional Leadership at the University of Montevallo. Prior to this position, he served as a principal, assistant principal, teacher, and coach. He has presented at numerous state and national conferences and spoken in school districts around the country. He maintains an educational leadership blog and has recently written two books with Todd Whitaker.

Dr. Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri. He is a leading presenter in the field of education and has written more than 50 books including the national bestsellers “What Great Teachers Do Differently” and “Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher,” co-written with Madeline Whitaker Good and Katherine Whitaker.

TEPSA Leader, Winter 2020, Vol 33, No 1

Copyright © 2020 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 5,900 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

© Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association

Sign up to receive the latest news on Texas PK-8 school leadership.