How to Create a Culture Supportive of Teaching and Learning: An Excerpt from High-Payoff Strategies

JODY SPIRO, EdD, Director of Education Leadership at The Wallace Foundation, is the author of Leading Change Step-by-Step: Tactics, Tools, and Tales (Jossey-Bass, 2011).

In this excerpt from High-Payoff Strategies: How Education Leaders Get Results, Jody Spiro suggests ways that education leaders can foster a supportive school culture. Drawing on the latest research as well as hundreds of interviews with education leaders, the book helps administrators lead successful change initiatives in their schools and districts by focusing on three top priorities: fostering a supportive district and school culture, leading instructional change, and building a learning community among faculty and staff.


The commitment to putting highly held values into action can be a good early win. This could come as the publicizing of a values statement for the school that incorporates the shared values (now that you know what they are). Similar to the previously discussed elementary school’s PRIDE motto, this is an important symbol of commitment—and also tests the assumption of whether the words chosen are indeed the values.

In that western district, they celebrated an early win once the educators had chosen the shared values. They called it ‘‘Values Day,’’ and everyone from the district came together (school leaders, central office staff, teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, parents, lunchroom workers, custodians) to celebrate and reflect on the shared core values and make a personal connection to the vision. It was a day dedicated to developing a common understanding of how to put the core values into action at all places in the school system. Having established this as an early win, it is now an annual occurrence.

Another example: A suburban elementary school principal wanted to change the school culture from one that used little data and employed a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction to a culture in which ongoing, formative assessment was used to identify individual student needs. Teachers did not value this data-informed approach. As an early win, the principal scheduled individual meetings with each teacher to talk about the data for the students in that teacher’s class. Although teachers did not initially value data, they did value recognition and coaching from the principal. They were pleased to get this individual attention. Once the principal had their attention, she was able to demonstrate how useful it was to review the data and incorporate what was learned into teachers’ lessons.

A different type of early win is to choose one widely held value, develop a plan to get more of it into daily life, and report back on how it goes. For example, in several schools, teachers use the measuring-the-culture exercise with their students. This gives the students the same experience that their teachers had, providing data for teachers to use as motivation in lesson plans, and symbolizes the importance of learning for all community members. After that early win, do the same with other widely held values.


Knowing members’ values and aspiring to the instruction-centered values is necessary but not sufficient. There must be constant emphasis and support for these values so they are expressed in all facets of the organization’s daily life. This means that members’ values and the aspirational instruction-centered values must be on display and in use constantly. This isn’t as hard as it might seem.

People’s values are very important to them. They will flood you with ideas of how to incorporate them more into daily life. Just ask! You can even put parameters around the acceptable ideas, such as they can’t involve additional funding. It doesn’t matter. People who hold these values will have many ideas. Ongoing support involves putting those ideas into action.

For example, staff members in one district office valued teaching and learning but found themselves far from the action. They suggested, and the superintendent agreed, to go in teams each month to other schools to observe personally the effects of various policies of the district office on teaching and learning in the schools. They spoke with teachers, observed classrooms, and debriefed the experiences with the leadership team. It wouldn’t surprise readers to learn that this on-the-ground perspective led to changes in district policies—making them less cumbersome and more supportive of teaching and learning.


Two detailed examples of principals who have developed innovative ways to build the school’s culture – or climate – follow with have been developed by Public Broadcasting Service affiliate WNET. They may be found at

In the video the two principals discuss the relationship between school culture and academic performance. They have led school culture in ways that create a supportive climate for teaching and learning—through systems and processes that are observable. They have aligned the culture experienced by the students with the larger school culture experienced by the adults. We also see the manifestation of the culture in the shared leadership the principals employ—in which the values of the school are seen in other leaders. Also observable is the importance of parental involvement in furthering the community culture of the school.

The middle school in Prince George’s County, Maryland demonstrates how culture can be used to take a school from one with student behavior problems that are getting in the way of instruction to one where there is consistency of expectation across all the adults and students in the building. Culture change has led to cutting student suspensions by 90% and an openness and sharing among teachers and among teachers and administration. This culture change was brought about by having a Culture Responsiveness Task Force comprised of a cross-section of folks. Some practices it led to are the creation of a new position, Assistant Principal of Culture, celebration of student success, and student uniforms. Consistency was the goal. And it was achieved.

The Bronx, New York elementary school also featured in the video shows how the culture was transformed by emphasizing a preventative approach whereby each student’s learning needs were diagnosed with data. The video also shows the school’s ‘‘Positive Behavior Intervention and Support’’ initiative, whereby students who succeed are able to make purchases from the store. Finally, teachers now visit and observe each other—and offer feedback in collegial ways—using an open culture to improve the basis for teaching and learning.


Spiro_High-Payoff StrategiesABOUT THE BOOK: High-Payoff Strategies helps administrators lead successful change initiatives by focusing on the three top priorities identified by research and practitioners alike: fostering a supportive district and school culture, leading instructional change, and building a learning community among faculty and staff.

The book includes rich and varied examples showing how real-world education leaders—in urban, suburban, and rural settings—have successfully led changes in their schools and districts. It also provides tools that readers can use immediately to put these practices in place, together with videos demonstrating the practices in action. High-Payoff Strategies helps education leaders create schools and districts that support teachers and make a difference in the lives of children.

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