Improving Schools through Cultural Symbols
Demographic, technological, and economic forces are transforming societal institutions and the ways in which people interact within them. Major challenges of twenty-first century education include adjusting to these shifts and structuring schools to improve human interaction and learning. One important way to shape schools is through their cultural symbols.
Schools are social organizations comprised of people with a set of shared beliefs, complex rituals and relationships, and collective verbal behaviors. Symbols are key in understanding these shared meanings, values, and behaviors because they are expressions of how people interact and conduct business from day to day. A school’s culture can be defined simply as “the way things are done around here” (Deal & Kennedy, 1982, p. 4), and things are done through such symbols as:
- Heroes and heroines,
- Myths and metaphors,
- Rituals and ceremonies,
- Facility décor, and
- Special language or jargon.
In any educational context, shared beliefs and values are personified by its heroes and heroines, maintained and reinforced by its rituals and ceremonies, shaped by the school environment, and communicated through the informal network. In strong cultures, these symbols are a visible, developed, and powerful means of solidarity in the organization. As cultural members embrace an increased sense of belonging, their lives take on new meaning, importance, and identity. In weak cultures these symbols are dormant and in need of revitalizing (Bolman & Deal, 2016).
A central activity of leadership is to improve schools through their symbolic patterns. For example, rituals are activities that occur regularly, such as morning announcements, weekly meetings, or daily greetings. Staff meetings are great venues to reinforce school mission, purpose, and values. In routine staff meetings, for instance, the strategy of “Raising the Achievement Bar for all Students” can be reinforced thorough recognizing, rewarding, and/or encouraging teachers who, in their instructional practices, successfully increase role expectations and improve student learning. An effective approach to teacher acknowledgment ensures that recognition is:
- In context with the larger goal and mission of the school,
- Appropriate in volume/scale of the action and results, and
- Authentic and tied to the teacher’s perception of value.
This recognition is also a way to ceremoniously consecrate heroes and heroines among the teaching ranks who embody the mission and vision of the school. Telling their stories through school publications also reinforces and deepens desired values and meanings.
Turning Barriers into Bridges
On a practical level, the process of examining cultural symbols and making weak cultures strong is sometimes easier said than done. There are times in any school culture—strong, weak, or dying—when existing authority and power structures or political forces present powerful barriers to change.
Educators may also find themselves in strong cultures that actually construct obstacles to improvement and effectiveness. “The way things are done around here” may be counterproductive to sound instructional practices. Moreover, if these symbols are strongly entrenched in the practices of the school, it is difficult to make any headway toward school enhancement.
Nonetheless, strategic, progressive improvement can occur. Internally, symbols provide meaning to instructional activity and construct a figurative bridge between educational activities and outcomes. Externally, symbols communicate the essential values and beliefs of the school to pertinent stakeholder groups.
In order to successfully envision and enhance cultures of learning in your school, I invite you to reflect upon and reply to the following questions:
- What symbols in your school are working to improve student learning?
- What symbols in your school are working to inhibit student learning?
- Through the use of cultural symbols, how can you improve your school setting?
Bolman, L., and Deal, T. (2016). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (6th ed.). San Francisco: Wiley.
Deal, T. E., and Kennedy, A. (1982). Corporate Cultures. Reading, MA: Jossey Bass.