What Is An Effective School Culture?

By André Double- Founder & Author of Leading Your International School.

“If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside”. 

Khaled Hosseini, Afghan- born American novelist and physician 

The Problem: If not careful, the international school leader can (unwittingly) create a culture of dependence.

The Solution: A deep understanding of your people, their culture and how they best work can help a growing interdependent culture to blossom.

One of the questions that has fascinated me over the years in my time working in and with International Schools is ‘What is culture?’ Indeed, increasingly in the workplace, a positive school culture can be the make or break when it comes to your approach to inclusion; staff turnover; the deciding factor upon which parents identify the right school climate for their children, or the standards and practices upon which you build your school’s foundation from and everything that may follow it.

In Leading Your International School we stated that:

“We have asked people for over twenty years what their culture is. Responses have included everything from ‘it’s our mission’, ‘it’s how people work’, ‘how people talk’ to ‘the way we look’. People have also described culture to us as ‘culture’! There are such varying views of what culture actually is, that it is not surprising it is difficult to develop, sustain, and measure. However, in general terms, your school culture is represented by the behavioural norms and actions of your workforce. We want you to think about culture as how people interact and work in an international school. How your teachers and students behave and how they perform their respective roles ends up being the culture of your school. There are both visible signs and invisible causes of how your culture is developing”. (Double and Cook, p. 222).

When you make a decision to work with a certain recruitment agent over another, you are making a decision about your culture. When you design, word and place your job descriptions, you are making a statement about your culture. And, when you choose either a selective or inclusive admissions policy, again you are representing your culture. Even something so simple as the manner in which your staff answer the telephone, can represent itself as your school culture.

Some time ago, several significant authors and their writing began to shape my ideas around culture. First, Geert Hofstede and his work with IBM, then Sandeep Rai and her fabulous ‘Cultural Compass’. Although some of Hofstede’s work has dated (particularly his presentation of ideas around gender), it proves a great foundation for those wanting to explore culture and its international contexts. Rai’s work on exploring international culture is a fabulous toolkit for any leader looking to navigate their ‘cultural compass’. Charles Duhig’s ‘The Power of Habit, which explored the ‘Keystone Habits’ – the habits that help create an effective culture and the one commitment to worker safety at Alcoa Steel, that transformed an entire company culture, again shaped our thinking. Finally, Sir John Whitmore’s work in ‘Coaching for Performance’ brought to the fore and our minds the kinds of cultures that international school leaders can and do create. Here we explore four. Where do you, your leadership and your school fit? Are you even a are mix of all four workplace cultures?


Behaviours The Lead To It: Fire- fighting, Blame, Fear, Criticism, Observation, Extrinsic motivation, Necessity.

The Leader: You are the boss. You are right, others listen. Little creativity; staff are risk -averse.

Your staff capacity: Heavily underutilised / potential not realised



Behaviours That Lead To It: ‘Open- door’ policy, One- way feedback, Persistent problem- solving, Monitoring, Copying

The Leader: You are still the boss, you try to help, but that help more often than not leads to dependence on you.

Your staff capacity: Underutilised



Behaviours That Lead To It: Empowering, Distribution, Facilitating, Partnerships, Understanding

The Leader: Begins to be distribute leadership. Risk- taking starts and staff feel empowered

Your staff capacity: More than average work capacity utilised



Behaviours That Lead To It: Transformational, Questioning, Being vulnerable, Collaborative, Challenge, Support, Development, Succession, Internal reward, Risk- taking, Actualisation

The Leader: Shares common goals, trusts, supports, develops staff through highly- effective targeted high- quality instructional/ distributed leadership and coaching.

Your staff capacity: Maximum capacity / strengths utilised / staff achieve their potential

Key Questions:

  1. What represents your school’s culture? Draw up a list of actions, symbols, behaviours and norms.
  2. What one habit your staff embedded could transform your school’s culture in the long-term?
  3. How can you tactically influence and develop your culture?
  4. What might it take to move your school culture towards becoming interdependent? Who might be the game-changers and how can you promote their thinking?

If you enjoyed reading this, then why not consider supporting me with the purchase of my book ‘Leading Your International School‘ and helping me in the writing of my 2nd book ‘Starting Your International School’? Available at the following outlets:

For more information, to write a principal’s blog for us or if you are interested in becoming a podcast guest, go to www.leadingyourinternationalschool.com

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