10 Thoughts on Changing School Culture

John Norlin · March 27, 2018



As a high school leadership teacher and student activities adviser for 10 years, one of my jobs was to work with the students at our school to create a positive culture and climate. To quote author James C. Hunter, “Culture goes much deeper than a mission statement. Culture is how group members actually behave, repeatedly and habitually.” With that climate is, “The product of the attention to those behaviors. It is the school’s effects on its people. It is something you can actually feel.” Many in education know that it is very easy to have your school culture turn into many different silos. To quote from Phil Boyte’s book School Culture by Design (which you should read), “Strong silo programs work against overall culture for many reasons. Lack of integration leads to isolation and competition, which leads to confusion and resentment, which leads to gossip and hostility, which leads to even less integration.”

In my experience working with hundreds of schools over the years, it is not that people don’t believe in the work of creating a strong culture and climate, but instead, I think it is a lack of vision on how to do it, coupled with the lack of focus, time, and energy needed to make it happen. I can tell you it is well worth the investment. Below are ten things that I have learned about how to make a difference in your school to create a strong culture and climate while keeping a strong focus on educating the whole child.

1. If you are going to make a difference in your school, teach your students to BE INTENTIONAL.

Such a simple, yet crucial piece of wisdom to teach our students. If we are going to teach students to have strong character, we must teach them to be intentional with their actions. To do this we need to teach students and staff that the battle is in the mind. In Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, he mentions that, “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” Just by being more intentional with our daily actions in small ways, we could greatly impact the culture and climate of our school by breaking through conditioned responses and connecting more with each other relationally. Remember: Sometimes it is not about adding one more thing to our plate, sometimes it is about being more intentional with what we are already doing.

2. If you want to make a difference in your school, teach your students that Purpose > Happiness.

If you ask the average person what they want most in their life, the number one answer is, “I just want to be happy.” When you ask students how they think we are doing as a society when it comes to happiness, they will tell you that we are not doing well. Many students struggle to even share with you one person in their life that they feel is genuinely happy. This past year I was able to attend the National Character Lab Conference in Philadelphia hosted by psychology professor Angela Duckworth who has been the lead researcher on the concept of grit. Professor Duckworth said, “Having a purpose means that, in choosing what to do, a person takes into account whether it will benefit other people. People who have this level of purpose feel a responsibility to make the world a better place, and feel that their lives have meaning.” In my experience when you teach students about purpose by introducing and teaching character and how to put it in action, you give students the opportunity to bring meaning into their life and when they experience meaning, they experience motivation, and when this happens they start to experience a deeper level of happiness that comes from seeing good in others and doing good for others. Remember: Living a life of purpose leads to happiness.

cs description

3. If you want to make a difference in your school, slow down enough to give students your full attention.

One year I gave out ten quantifiable feedback forms per week for the entire year to students and or staff. These forms asked people to rank me on a scale of 1-10 as their teacher, colleague, friend, etc. and then to tell me how I could be a 10 knowing that was rarely if ever going to be the case. I learned through this process that students and staff felt like I was so busy all of the time that I never gave them my full attention. People want to share their stories and passions with you. Students have questions. Friends and family want to connect. One of the greatest gifts we can give to someone else is our full attention. This is where you hear what is really going on in the lives of your students and what is up with your school. Don’t miss it because you are too busy. Remember: People crave attention and appreciation as much as they do bread. -Mother Teresa

4. If you want to make a difference in your school, start each day by holding the door open for people…and while you are at it, teach your students to do the same.

For 10 years at the high school I worked at, students would hold open the doors each morning for students, staff, and community members. None of these students were graded for doing this, they did it because they chose to and because they knew that it was one of the best ways to consistently build positive connections with people each day. As the years went on, I noticed that more and more of the students standing at the door were not apart of our student leadership program, but were just students who wanted to connect and give back to others as well. I’ve learned that it’s not that students don’t want to do good, sometimes they just need someone to do it first. I used to shy away from saying people needed to greet intentionally each day, but now I do because it is one of the simplest (but not easy or everyone would do it) strategies to start improving the culture and climate of your school each morning. Remember: We were built to be relational and connect from the time we were little babies.

5. If you want to make a difference in your school, teach your students to sign up to do hard things.

In a day and age where everything seems to be right at our fingertips and instant, we can easily get into the trap of immediate gratification. If we are going to teach our students about the importance of delayed gratification, we need to teach them to sign up to do hard things. From my experience, when you give students the opportunity to sign up for things that are in service of others and are a part of something bigger than themselves, then they show up to make a difference. Deep down we want to have purpose in what we do and when you bring purpose into what you are doing in your school by taking on projects that serve students, staff, and the community, watch what kind of difference it makes. Remember: It is the things we work hardest for that will reward us the most.

cs description

6. If you want to make a difference in your school, provide cover from above.

One of the things I always told my student leaders who were working hard to make a positive difference in our school was that "When things go well, I will give you all of the credit, and when things go wrong, I will take the responsibility." The goal with this is for students to know that they have a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes. Remember: When you provide cover from above as the leader, it allows your people to do their jobs on the ground.

7. If you want to make a difference in your school, love your students, but make your love relentless.

My students knew that although I would take the responsibility when things didn't go well, it doesn’t mean that we were not going to talk about what needed to change or improve for the future. High supports but also high accountability. When my wife and I were expecting our first born we asked our high school students what advice they would give to us as new parents. It was the specific advice from our most respectful and hard working students that struck us most. They said, “As much as we push back on you when we are growing up, stay on us and hold us accountable because deep down this is not only what we need, but also what we want.” We need to relentlessly pursue our students with not only unconditional love when it comes to kindness, but also unconditional love when it comes to keeping high expectations and accountability for them. Remember: You can love someone and not always “feel like it”.

8. If you want to make a difference in your school, trust the process.

Over the years of teaching a full load of character and leadership classes, I had students from all different walks of life and backgrounds. I had students who wanted to be the next student body President, and I also had the student who was placed in the class because our counselors thought it would be “good for them”. One of the things I learned from my years of talking about Character Development and Social Emotional Learning is that it is not that students don’t want to be good, they just don’t always know what it looks like. I also have learned that some of the most powerful stories of change and impact have come from the students who act like they aren’t interested or don’t want to be in the class. I have also learned that when it comes to culture and climate work with what you are doing to create community in your school, that when your biggest activities are outward focused, to serve the community and each other, that's when people want to be apart of it and contribute. Remember: people support what they help to create.

cs desciption

9 - If you want to make a difference in your school, role model what strong character looks outside of school.

I still remember every story that my high school teacher told me about his family, including the day he first saw his wife before they were married, running down the road in a red jogging suit near the college they both attended. I remember we were all drawn into these stories because it was something we could all connect with, in that we either had a good home life and knew how important this was, or that we did not have a positive home life and knew how important this was. He was teaching us about strong character through sharing his personal stories of family and community outside of school. We need to make the hard choice to prioritize family and relationships outside of work. Remember the airplane instruction, “Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with their own.” If we don’t take care of ourselves and our family and friends, we won’t be able to most effectively serve and care for our students.

10 - If you want to make a difference in your school, keep pursuing your most difficult students.

It is with our most difficult students that many of the most beautiful and uplifting stories come. It can be so exhausting at times to stay with it when holding high expectations and high supports for a student who does not have either of those before coming into your class. I remember a female student once who came into my class and would not give me the time of day, even though I intentionally brought positivity and encouragement unconditionally to her day in and day out. One “battle” we had was that everyday she had the book Twilight out on her desk and I could not get her to put it away. She was glued to it! On a particular difficult day with this student I was determined to change this. I went to the main office after school and asked if anyone had read the Twilight book series. I found an enthusiastic Assistant Principal who had, so I spent the next ten minutes asking questions about the basic plot line, learning names of the characters and asking questions about what happened during the series. The next day in class my student once again had her book out and would not put it away so I shared with the class that I didn’t know why these books like Twilight were so popular because they were so predictable. She immediately was offended and then challenged me to predict what happens. I gradually worked my way through the book by asking one question about who the characters were and the basic plot line and then kept saying, “And then this probably happens…” Needless to say, her jaw was on the floor with how accurate I was. At the end when I had her convinced, I smiled and she knew. For the rest of the semester this student was completely different, still struggled from time to time with content, but when it came to our relationship she knew that I cared enough to keep pursuing her. I still remember the day I received a message out of the blue years later saying how she was doing and that she still remembers what she learned in class and how important it is to her today. Remember: Hurt people, hurt people and every student deserves someone who is crazy about them.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.