Your International School Culture

by André Double

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The Context

In most of our international schools – old or new, a culture already exists, that has been built up over a period of time. Shaped by the people who work their, the practices they observe and policies they implement. The best leaders in our international schools show a complete awareness of that culture and proactively develop it and use it to enhance each and every aspect of their school and its performance, bringing people and their passions together, around a central unifying purpose. In Leading Your International School I talked about culture being the ‘glue that binds your teachers and staff together – particularly during times of adversity’. Yet culture for many continues to remain an enigma. Some have tried to ’embed’ a culture in their school with an overemphasis on sports, The Arts or impossibly high academic standards. When a particular member of staff leaves, there can be a cultural void. Here we explore the culture that many schools and their leaders will be trying to embed within their schools at this time of year. We begin with a word of advice. 

Choose Your CPD Provider with Care! 


Imagine you’ve spent several months (even years) leading up the opening of your school. As part of your orientation process you decide to bring in a CPD provider that you feel is innovative and focused on wellbeing. The optimism in the air is palpable. However, things don’t go according to plan, the feedback you receive from staff is less than flattening and the company has made a large dent in your annual budget. The company was a personal recommendation from a friend, yet since the recommendation they had been sold and operated a new model of leadership. Some of their staff appeared to continually make factually inaccurate references. The ideas and practices they presented were a little outdated and many teachers had gone through something similar in their previous schools. Engagement therefore, was lower than expected. Furthermore, their culture and your school’s didn’t seem to be aligned. Finally, the practices your staff were encouraged to adopt dried up in the space of a fortnight of opening the school. The moral of the story? Choose external providers with care, diligence and with your culture at the forefront of your decision-making process. 

What is Culture? 

I’ve heard culture described as just about everything in my time in international education. 

‘The way we do things around here’; ‘It’s our people’, ‘The way we take care of our people’; ‘Our culture is demonstrated through our openness and the fact we are always open to new ideas and ways of doing things’; and finally – ‘our culture is evident through our non-hierarchical school structure, roles and titles aren’t important – values and actions are’. There’s so much that has been written about culture, a great deal of it on the corporate landscape. In an International School, your culture is developed, built and carried through:

  • Your People. The way they act and behave. The way your people listen, without interrupting. The way they see problems as challenges to overcome and their ability recognise the big picture – the ‘why’ we do what we do. 
  • Language and Communication. The way in which staff interact; staff interact with students; telephones are answered and enquiries are dealt with. 
  • Your Values, Ethics and Moral Code. Glamorous vision statements on the wall are one thing. The daily articulation and expectation and individual accountability are another. 
  • Your Decision-Making Styles and Approaches. Would you be surprised to learn that many international teachers follow their principal around the world from school to school. Can we defend such decisions with an exactness, that each and every time it happens their were not other equally capable candidates who could have taken the position? 

Culture Is Your School’s DNA

“School culture, according to Fullan (2007), is “The guiding beliefs and values evident in the way a school operates,” which can be used to demonstrate trust and to establish and maintain respect between teachers and students” (Double & Cook, 2023).  Imagine if your school had to move campus or it was forced to close again, as we all experienced with Covid. How did your school cope? How much time did your culture buy you, as parents believed in your culture, what it stood for and its ability to make a difference? 

Encountering A Negative Culture

Establishing a successful school culture within an international school context takes time and courage. Some fail to get there because culture per se, its complexity and its contextual application are not always understood. A school may be living on the coattails of its past performances and reputation, a negative climate may have usurped a positive one, or students may have become the focus of blame for poorer academic performance (Deal and Peterson, 2016). Teachers are quick to move on (some before contractual expiration) and day- to- day absenteeism may become difficult to manage. Thus, a school culture can be seriously eroded at times. Signs a toxic culture is developing include: 

• Pessimism has overtaken optimism. It is difficult to garner support from anyone for anything outside their normal daily role. 

• Professional learning is treated with disdain or ridicule. Staff have no formal ownership of its process. 

Top- down reforms and pressures to increase accountability mean teachers are watched 24- 7. 

 Incessant teacher and principal turnover, leaving the school precariously placed. 

 Failure from the board to support the new school principal resulting in constraints on budgets and frequent changes in curriculum design. 

A negative network can build up in toxic schools, and will include people who are: 

• Destructive spies 

• Saboteurs 

• Pessimistic taletellers 

• Negaholics 

• Prima donnas 

• Martyrs 

• Rogue pirates 

• Equipment and resource vultures 

• Deadwood, driftwood, and ballast 

• Free riders 

• Rumourmongers 

• Antiheroes and antiheroines

(Deal and Peterson, 2016, p.198)

“Your Leadership capacity and development, how far and wide it stretches and who wants to be a leader are indicative of a supportive culture that thrives on learning”. 

Can You Measure Your Culture? 

In short, yes, you can measure your culture. There are a number of ways that you can measure and build your culture. They include: 

• Wellbeing. How do your staff value what you provide for them in terms of healthcare, critical illness and compassionate policies? How do staff come together? 

Organisational agility. What happens during periods of change, difficulty or economic downturns? Can your school staff remain focused on the school’s key objectives? 

• Leadership capacity and development. How far and wide it stretches and who wants to be a leader are indicative of a supportive culture that thrives on learning. 

• Workplace behaviours. What is tolerated and what is not are an indicator of culture. Is it ok for staff to talk negatively in silos about management or are such conversations shut down before they start with effective employee engagement practices? 

• Workplace relationships. Use a regular diagnostic to ascertain staff feelings towards employee relationships and act swiftly and decisively when managing them. 

• Vision and Innovation. Effective workplace cultures have ‘buy- in’ when it comes to vision and innovation. Measure alignment towards your vision and the ease within which new ideas and their strategies can be implemented. 

• Culture Conversations. Have HR and your people leaders conduct joint regular ‘culture conversations’ with the objective of qualitatively recording how you are doing. These should be regular, short, and informal to gauge cultural capacity, strength and resilience. The mere opportunity of a conversation for a member of staff shows that you care and are committed to developing a successful work culture. 

• The School’s Social Calendar.A healthy school culture is one in which a growing number of school events and opportunities for staff to come together are both planned and supported.

Top Tips: To build your culture: 

• Link it to your school vision, mission and objectives (Cameron and Green, 2012). 

• Set high expectations of your values, ethics and moral code, then articulate, lead, and demonstrate them across all your stakeholders and in all that you do. 

• Develop the language you use, how you communicate to staff, and the artifacts you use to represent your culture. 

• Interview for it, both internally and externally, then develop the highest standards of employee onboarding and orientation you can. 

• Train HR and your people leaders to interact with staff compassionately and effectively – frequently conduct ‘culture conversations’.

• Choose the right leadership approach, invest in your people and their futures. Build highly focused and purposeful collaborative teams. 

• Challenge those who seek to destroy it. 

• Measure it. Use staff turnover, exit interviews, staff satisfaction, and parental engagement surveys.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed it, then please consider ordering a copy of my book ‘Leading Your International School’ and do attend our upcoming Webinar on Culture and Inclusion this Monday! 

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