Cultural Leadership

Reflections and Ideas on Making the Right Impact on School Culture

My Story

When I was asked by Dr. Bill Ziegler (@DrBillZiegler) if I was interested in talking about lessons I have learned as a young leader I was honored to be considered with the others in this group. My background involves teaching history at Dieruff High School in the Allentown School District. I made the transition to school leadership very quickly as I knew I wanted to have a bigger impact on students. Many of these aspirations came from my uncle who was a teacher, principal, and superintendent. I was able to see the impact that he made on so many students and teachers throughout his career. I loved what I was able to do with my students, but I wanted to make a bigger impact. I transitioned to two assistant principal positions in the Muhlenberg School District and the East Penn School District. Finally, I took the big step and applied for a principal position in Bucks County. I am currently the proud Principal of Klinger Middle School in the Centennial School District.

Cultural Leader

I started thinking back through all my experiences about what I wanted to share. Being on this list of young leaders is such a privilege as I continue to grow and learn from each of them. Having been in four different educational settings, I've had many opportunities to learn and grow as a leader. I think back to all my first days and last days at each of the buildings. I have learned so much from the experiences I have had and from the individuals I have had the pleasure to work with over the years. With that being said, there are three things that I want to highlight for anyone that will be taking on any leadership position or who are already in a leadership role. These three areas surround the idea of school culture and the role that a leader takes in forming and reforming.

School culture needs to be the biggest priority for any leader. This is the biggest lesson that I have learned throughout all my years in education. Being a cultural leader starts from the second you walk into an interview room to well after you leave any building. I will be honest, I have made mistakes in this area. As a young administrator, it was a challenge for me at first to lead many individuals that had more experience than I did. I would caution any new administrator that when entering a new position or job you don’t need to walk in and try and prove yourself. You did this through the interview process. Your job is to work on culture with your new staff. Your priority is to build trust from the second that you are hired. No matter what situation you are walking into your job is to build a positive culture with those you serve. Before we get into a few applicable examples, I want to be very clear that a positive school culture is not built on one-off events or one person. School culture is not about buying coffee, having a fun event, or doing any of things listed below one time. This may help to improve morale for a bit of time, it may have an impact on culture, but it doesn’t define it. Culture is built over time and isn’t seen in one event. Culture defines who you are as a school community. It is who you are at the core. The following ideas are starting points to begin your journey as a cultural leader.

Building Relationships

To begin building a positive culture with your staff, your first task is to get to know them as individuals. This can be done in many different ways, you need to find what works best for you and also for your staff. The most important way to begin building relationships is all of those face-to-face interactions that happen when people walk in to start their morning, as you’re walking the halls, as you’re visiting classrooms, and as they were leaving for the day. You have the opportunity to build a positive relationship with everyone every single day. Do what you can to make every interaction a positive interaction. When visiting classrooms I would encourage you to leave positive notes for them as you leave. I will often leave sticky notes for my teachers highlighting something great they did. I may even post a note on their door that just says have a great day or thank you for everything you do. I took an idea from Beth Houf (@BethHouf) about making little cards that have positive messages listed on them with our school hashtag. I will often leave these in classrooms after one of our school walkthroughs. They are more personal than a digital message.

Another idea that I use is a Google form that inquires about information that people may want me to know about them. This included their backgrounds, children, where they went to school, type of music they prefer, favorite type of dessert, the craziest thing about them, something they would want me to know, and their social media names. The simple form gives me so much information that is readily available any time I choose to use it. It gave my staff members an opportunity to share information with me in a very non-threatening manner. It also gave them an idea of what I’m interested in. This was especially the case when I asked for social media usernames. This form can be updated each year to keep track of my staff as we grow throughout the years. As we hire new staff members I have them fill this out as well. This sheet has really helped as it provides a quick guide to info on my staff that I might not learn throughout our busy workday.

Building relationships requires the trust and efforts everyone, not just the building leaders. Our staff has done an excellent job of developing monthly lunches based around a specific theme. They have developed ways to celebrate each other throughout the year. We also want to build relationships through learning. We started a Pineapple Chart that is located in our mail room. The idea behind a Pineapple Chart is to invite colleagues into your classroom to see an instructional strategy. This starts the collaboration and learning flowing in a non-threatening manner. Teachers get to highlight a strategy they do well or a new strategy that they are looking to get feedback on from other teachers. Teachers simply put their name, room number, and strategy that they will be showing on the board. Other teachers then have an open invitation to visit on that day. My role in this Pineapple chart is simple. If someone wants to visit a class during one of their teaching periods it is my job to get them coverage if it something they really want to see. I also plan to teach a few lessons in the upcoming months. This open door approach naturally builds a culture of collaboration and learning between staff members.

Celebrate all of their successes in every way possible. An easy approach to this is to incorporate successes and celebrations into your normal meetings. We do this at the start of every faculty meeting. We have a bulletin board up in our faculty room for staff shout outs. We use cards that are designed with our school mascot to pass positive messages along to other staff members. We highlight all the great things they are doing on our social media feeds on a constant basis. We want to share our successes with the world. As a leader, your job is to help tell your school’s story and celebrating your staff comes right along with celebrating your students.

Student Voice as a Culture Builder

My next piece of advice surrounds the most important people in the world of education, the students! You cannot have a great school culture without the students having a voice and role in guiding your school. The first thing I will tell you is student voice is more than the typical student council. This is a great start, but that is what it is, a great start. We have the opportunity to do so much more with student voice in our buildings. Students are the reason we are in these positions. Our job is to serve them every single day. By giving them a voice in the building and their education we are teaching them a skill that you won't find in any math or social studies class. As I talk about student voice I want to highlight two words, opportunity and authenticity. These two words lead to student agency. In order to have student voice in your school culture, you must first provide opportunities. You need to create real opportunities for students to have a voice in their school. These opportunities need to include formal and informal avenues for students to have their voices heard. I will offer a very important piece of advice. Students need to know you are invested in them and that you care about them before they will ever feel comfortable sharing their voice. Building trust with your students takes time and it takes small steps. The first strategy we used is a more formal approach, which has led to more informal strategies. We have implemented “We need to talk” sheets for students to set up appointments with administrators. Students write down what they want to talk about. This could vary from student issues, student ideas, or questions they have about something. These sheets have become a huge success. These sheets have led to student-run clubs, fundraising campaigns, and an anti-bullying program. We have even take the form digital that way students can just submit a Google Form that contains the same materials. The next approach we took to include student voice was to design a course that would challenge students to solve real-world problems. Many of these problems students chose to focus on were issues they saw within the school itself. Students design a solution to the problem and then they pitch their ideas to administrators and teachers. We have seen great ideas come out of this class. We now a school store that is completely run by a group of students. They do everything from managing, budgeting, scheduling, ordering, and branding. As a leader, it is our responsibility to create opportunities to promote student voice and make sure it is part of our school culture. These were two simple examples of how student voice impacts our school culture. Our students know from the moment they transition to us in 6th-grade to when they leave in 8th-grade we will do all we can to have their voices help design the educational experience they have over three years.

Sharing Your School Story

My final thought comes down building a culture that engages your stakeholders via school branding. I never thought that I would need to focus so much attention on the idea school branding when I wanted to make the transition into school leadership. I can tell you I spend a great deal of my time focusing on this. The reason I make this a priority is I want to engage our school community and share our story of what takes place in our building with our students each day. I want to be sure I am the one telling our story and not leaving that for someone else. As a leader, you have the opportunity to create a strong school brand using many of the social media tools that are available. We currently use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share our school story and engage our school community. We build a culture of communication and storytelling. We make sure that every day we are sharing the great things that go on with our students and staff so that everyone outside of our organization knows what is taking place inside our school walls. It took time to figure out where our school community was as it pertains to the use of social media. I know my students are on Instagram. I know that my families and community members are on Facebook. I know specifically went throughout the day to post to get the most reactions. I have included a few simple steps to begin branding your story to build a strong culture of community engagement.

The first step is the obvious step. Create social media accounts for your school. Make sure you know where your school community is as it relates to social media. The reason we use Instagram so much is it allows you to post to all different social media accounts from one account. When I post from Instagram I click a share button that also goes to our school Facebook and our school Twitter account. This makes it very efficient to share stories of what is taking place throughout the day. We will post pictures, videos, and interviews on a daily basis. We post announcements, cancellations, and general reminders to keep everyone informed of all that is going on in our school.

Design a media screen to use in your postings and for people to take pictures with when they come in your school. I learned this from Joe Sanfelippo (@Joe_Sanfelippo) who in my opinion is the leader in school branding. The media screen has been one of the best purchases that we've made as a school building to help share our story. Parents and community members come into the building and always want to get their pictures taken in front of the media screen. I have included our school mascot along with our hashtag to highlight our school brand. Make sure that anytime you bring community members into your building the media screen is out and available for people to take pictures with. When we have awards for students we make sure to put them in front of this media screen. They feel like celebrities and they love to share it via their own accounts. We use it when we post videos and announcements. Students also love the media screen. They take pictures, selfies, and videos in front of the screen all the time. It is an excellent tool to help with your school branding.

Encourage your teachers to design their own social media accounts for classroom use. Your day will be busy. By having your staff create their own classroom accounts it allows the storytelling to continue whether you are in their classroom or not. My staff members are constantly sharing what happens in their classrooms which allows parents, grandparents, guardians, and community members to see what is taking place in specific classrooms throughout a school day. Talk about transparency, this provides everyone with an open door to what takes place inside our classrooms. As a leader, you need to model what this may look like in your school building. I would encourage you to collaborate with staff members and design a social media takeover days. If someone is just starting off be with them as they try it out for a day. Encourage specific types of posts. Have them record videos highlighting the learning. Show how you involve students in this process. Be there to support them in this risk-taking adventure.

Final Thoughts

I hope that throughout this post I have given you specific examples of why I feel that building a positive school culture is the most important task that any leader has. Please understand that these three areas by no means define a school culture but I feel that they have made the biggest impact in my career and they are three areas that I feel I have made the biggest growth from myself as a young leader. My second hope is that after you read through this post you will reach out and share your ideas that you have implemented in your own setting. I have learned that we grow more from learning with each other. Sharing strategies and ideas makes us all better leaders for our staff and for our students. Being a cultural leader is one of the most important roles you will take on. Embrace it, learn from mistakes, and be the leader that helps build your school culture.

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