Improving Schools through Cultural Symbols

Author:

Ed Harris

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.

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:

  • Stories,
  • 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).

Cultural Leadership

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:

  1. In context with the larger goal and mission of the school,
  2. Appropriate in volume/scale of the action and results, and
  3. 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?

References

  • 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.
  • Image Source

13 Comments

  1. Mashon Buckner

    What symbols in your school are working to improve student learning?

    Since we haven’t had a chance to do our weekly assemblies to recognize our academic leaders, they were announced on the announcements and given a special mask to wear at school. These represent student leaders and other students look up to them. The kids are so proud to wear these masks and they are awarded to not only the high achieving students, but also the hardest working students.

    What symbols in your school are working to inhibit student learning?

    I would say the over abundance of posted rules and regulations that come from different theories can be overwhelming. We are Great Expectations, Conscious Discipline, Social Thinking, TBRI, Halo Project, etc. The list keeps going and it can be overwhelming for students to see all the different options there and know which one to go to.

    Through the use of cultural symbols, how can you improve your school setting?

    Focusing on one of the behavior curriculum would be ideal. Conscious Discipline allows for a wish you well board for absent staff and students, as well as a friends and family board to post pictures of students and their closest friends or families. It develops a sense of belonging and community within the school.

    Reply
  2. Anissa Angier-Dunn

    In my school we use our symbols as practical tools in our environment. Symbols when they also have a practical application can really improve a school setting in my opinion. We have a common saying every day at the end of announcements such as “It’s my job to keep you safe, and it’s your job to…” and the kids respond with “…keep it that way!” This is something we can then reference in a lot of situations when we need to address an issue. An example might be a fight on the playground which is clearly not safe, or running in the hallways which is not safe. We also use this safety ritual in other symbols such as universal “safe places” throughout the school that help students self-regulate when needed. This gets them back into a student learning environment quickly. It is somewhat difficult to identify something that we do as a ritual that inhibits student learning since we’re designed to promote student learning. But maybe a ritual that inhibits learning is allowing over-stretched teachers to develop. When teachers are stretched too far, they cannot adequately plan lessons or sustain high-quality instruction. This is an accepted “norm” in a lot of school settings.

    Reply
  3. David Jewell

    Two years ago my school, during announcements said goooo wildcats. Upward and onward to be lifelong learners. As the years have progressed it has become mundane and not as impactful as the original intention was meant to be. A couple reasons why this occurred. #1 the construction took over 1/2 of the school and we were relegated to 1200 students in three hallways. #2 the intercom system rarely worked and students could not hear. #3 covid. With masks and social distancing we were no longer allowed to congregate in assemblies. These reasons alone made it difficult to continue with cultural symbol. I believe this year we will make a change. The inhibiting factors are listed above and I hope to start up assemblies again along with a working intercom system and a completed school.

    Being authentic will be the biggest impact to improve your school setting. Teachers, students and everyone else can see through the fake, so being authentic is a huge step in what it means to increase your school culture.

    Reply
  4. Randy Williams

    In the district in which I teach, we have a multilayered vision statement, but one of the focus areas of the statement is to deliver exceptional learning in the 5 A’s (Academics, Activities, Arts, Athletics, Attitude). All decisions that are made are aligned with this statement. Plus, the district has a motto of striving for excellence which permeates throughout the district at all levels. It is based on the idea that we are constantly striving for improvement from administrators and teachers to students, so basically, we want to improve. You see this in the schools striving for improvement to better serve students. In addition, the district vision statement the school I teach at has a set of belief statements that are closely aligned with the district vision but are more geared to serve as a guiding post for our decision impacting the students are our site. Both are posted in each classroom but, more importantly, are referenced constantly in almost all group communication and guide the daily decisions of the school and classrooms. This is important that it is good to have a vision statement, mission statement, and belief statement. Still, unless they are used consistently and constantly, they are just statements: they have to be living breathing identity for them to have the impact.

    One of the points that resonated with me in the article is how language impacts the culture, like stories, but it could also be in the signage and things hanging in the building. For example, a sign could read Do not eat in the library, which I consider negatively. Instead, the sign could say thank you for eating in the cafeteria and leaving food and beverages in your bag. This rephrasing now has a positive connotation for students. Often, we can do little things when linked together that can positively impact the culture of the school and district.

    Reply
  5. Christie Sandefur

    My school has a motto we say at the end of announcements everyday. We use the phrase “At Canyon Ridge” we will be on time, ready for success, considerate and kind. We will ROCK the Ridge. This has promoted a sense of community and ownership in how we not only work towards academic success but how we present ourselves in our school community. We started this the first year the school opened 8 years ago and even today, students will remember that motto. It has become a historical symbol of Canyon Ridge. When our seniors come back to visit on Senior day they all repeat it as soon as they come in the building. We have created a culture for them just from one simple saying.

    Reply
    • Tami Woods

      One of the symbols in my school that are working to improve student learning are the wildly important goals (WIGS) that we talk about in the classrooms, post in the hallways and progress monitor. Student learning data, is charted and celebrated monthly. We are a lighthouse “Leader in Me” elementary school. Our morning student led announcements include a monthly leadership habit plus our “WIGS” along with words such as “we have a plan and set goals, we do things that have meaning and make a difference, we are an important part of our classroom and contribute to our school’s mission and vision, we look for ways to be a good citizen. We have artwork and leadership quotes all up and down the hallways that serve as visual reminders to students that they are all leaders. All of these symbols in our school have helped to improve student learning. Our school has moved from a “C-“on the state report card to an “A” in the area of academic growth. I think we could improve our school setting by having monthly student led assemblies again. Covid19 has prevented us from having celebratory monthly student led assemblies where the students and teachers are recognized and celebrated in a BIG way! We did this Pre-COVID and it really makes a difference!

      Reply
    • Anissa Angier-Dunn

      In my school we use our symbols as practical tools in our environment. Symbols when they also have a practical application can really improve a school setting in my opinion. We have a common saying every day at the end of announcements such as “It’s my job to keep you safe, and it’s your job to…” and the kids respond with “…keep it that way!” This is something we can then reference in a lot of situations when we need to address an issue. An example might be a fight on the playground which is clearly not safe, or running in the hallways which is not safe. We also use this safety ritual in other symbols such as universal “safe places” throughout the school that help students self-regulate when needed. This gets them back into a student learning environment quickly. It is somewhat difficult to identify something that we do as a ritual that inhibits student learning since we’re designed to promote student learning. But maybe a ritual that inhibits learning is allowing over-stretched teachers to develop. When teachers are stretched too far, they cannot adequately plan lessons or sustain high-quality instruction. This is an accepted “norm” in a lot of school settings.

      Reply
  6. Dominic Egure

    My school had an end of the month assembly where everyone in the school, teachers and students gathered under the mango trees to commend and applaud students (or classes) who worked hardest in the particular month. Specifically, the neatest class of the month is applauded; the most diligent student of the month is applauded; and many other praises are given to reward hard work. This is also the day that each class sends a class delegate to show (display) the uniqueness or creativity of their class, and no one student is allowed to represent a class more than one time in a given school year. These celebrations and rituals were symbolic. They taught students to develop growth mindset. I believe that it was a shared value system and common orientation that talents and abilities are not cast on stone; they can be developed. In the midst of dilapidated class room buildings with bad chairs and tables, students demonstrated resilience, and were willing to stick to their vision. #Nigerian perspective

    Reply
  7. Keith Ooten

    At my school site we have a slogan and phrase, “assume the best intent while setting the gold standard.” The staff of my school really has bought into this ideology and has made this school a wonderful place to be and to work. We also have numerous past students that have done great things with themselves including Skip Bayless, Elizabeth Warren, and Vince Gill. There is a designated area for our past students as well with their name on the wall, tying them to our school. Finally, we have a school wide program where we raise money for certain families that are in desperate need. This brings the school closer together as well as brining in the community to assist.

    Reply
  8. George Pascaul

    our School has several phrases we use every morning. after a couple years of it, the phrases are burned into the kids’, and teacher’s, memory. ” the most amazing elementary school in the universe” is one of them. another is “its. great day to have a great day”. the school also changes up the theme for the year. every year we pick a new theme and decorate the building accordingly. this year is “level up” so everything will be video game themed. along with the new theme will come new catch phrases to add into the library. as annoying as it may seem as adults it does work. every wall has a reminder of what to do or think for the students. the goal of the school is plastered all over the place to be seen at all times. if anything, there is no excuse for not knowing the expectations.

    when I was in school we had the 7 pillars of character counts. to this day I remember them. I even remember the cadence you used to say it in and the wall we had to face while saying it.

    keeping a positive environment can be a very useful tool. filling the school with positive symbols helps create that environment. at the elementary level, it is everything. about a quarter of the student can’t even read what’s on the walls but can identify the message being said just from the repetition alone.

    Reply
  9. Courtney Miller

    At my university we have different symbols that encourage student learning. We use bulletin boards to advertise tutoring for those struggling. We also post student success stories on every floor so students can see that our students are succeeding. We post graduation photos of nurses on the 1st floor. We put our office hours in our syllabus and are present for students to get help. We also post additional resources on our website to help students. One thing that inhibits learning is sometimes teachers are not present in their offices during office hours or fail to give back exams so students can learn from their mistakes.

    The main thing we can do to help with learning is we can be present more for our students. So they can tell the stories about how teachers were there for them when they needed help. We can also post more success stories of students. All these visual cues help students want to learn.

    Reply
    • Dominic Egure

      My school had an end of the month assembly where everyone in the school, teachers and students gather under the mango trees to commend and applaud students (or classes) who worked hardest in the month. Specifically, the neatest class of the month is applauded; the most diligent student of the month is applauded; and many other praises are given to reward hard work. This is also the day that each class sends a class delegate to show (display) the uniqueness or creativity of a class, and no one student is allowed to represent a class in a given school year. These celebrations and rituals are symbolic. They teach students to develop growth mindset. What I believe that it was a shared view that talents and abilities are not cast on stone; they can be developed. In the midst of dilapidated class room buildings with bad chairs and tables, students demonstrated resilience, and were willing to stick to their vision. #Nigerian perspective

      Reply

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