How to Reset School Culture Post-COVID: Tips for Education Leaders

Photo: A sign outside Oakland Elementary in Illinois welcomes students back after a period of remote learning. (Courtesy of Antioch School District)

Principals strive to build a culture that’s safe, welcoming, and inspiring to the students who walk through the school’s doors or log on to its learning platforms. But the pandemic has made it difficult, if not impossible, to bolster school spirit.

At the start, some 3 million students vanished from school rosters, and the rest have been moving from in-person to remote and hybrid learning. So when the pandemic ends and it’s safe to bring kids back to school, the task of building a sense of belonging and a motivation to learn will start anew. And it will have to be different from the efforts we made before the pandemic, with a greater emphasis on students' well-being as opposed to assessments.

6 Ways to Build Positive School Culture Post-Pandemic

Dr. Bradford Hubbard, superintendent of Antioch School District in Illinois, and Neil Lesinski, principal of Cary-Grove High School in Community District 155 in Illinois, know how challenging it can be to boost school spirit under normal circumstances. They say it’s important to start planning now for the next school year.

Here are their recommendations for building positive school culture post-pandemic.

1. Be Prepared to Address School Avoidance Issues

The first few weeks of the transition to full-time learning will be critical. Some students may have missed more than a year of school and may not be too keen on returning. Principals will have to win them over. Lesinski advises: “Don’t just tell students to get involved. Don’t ask them to do more. Instead, motivate students to fully engage during the course of a normal school day.”

Plan for small-group brainstorming sessions on how to make school a place where kids feel invested. Maybe that’s allowing students to start clubs based on their interests, whether it’s playing video games or making TikTok videos just for a laugh. It might be soliciting their advice on holding a community fundraiser or how to fix areas of the school that could use a spruce. When Dr. Hubbard served as a principal, his school held “Feedback Fridays.” This was a day when kids in student council walked around school asking their peers, “How can the cafeteria be improved? What’s your experience in math class?”

But if you’re going to solicit student feedback, Dr. Hubbard warns, make sure you’re prepared to demonstrate that their voices hold power. You don’t want them to get the message that sharing their ideas is a waste of time. When students told Dr. Hubbard that there were no locks on the doors in the girls’ bathroom in the science wing, he fixed the problem right away. When students pushed for the privilege of leaving campus during lunch, he didn’t say no, even though he was hesitant.

“We started talking about one day a semester where students who met a benchmark—perfect attendance, for instance—could potentially leave campus for lunch,” Dr. Hubbard says. “We always tried to find a way to get to ‘yes.’”

"That’s the point of a positive culture, to make sure that every kid feels seen, heard, and loved."

Dr. Bradford Hubbard Superintendent of Antioch School District in Illinois

2. Do an Equity Audit

This step should be ongoing, of course, but it will be especially important due to the inequities many students suffered during the pandemic. Walk through the school’s hallways and classrooms. Take note of what you see, from the pictures on the walls to the trophies in display cases. Are all of your students’ stories being told? Will they see themselves represented? Make sure there are just as many awards displayed for academics and the arts as there are for sports. Survey the books in the library to ensure the ones on display reflect the diversity of the student body. Students shouldn’t have to go hunting for books that mirror their experience. (Consider this list of culturally responsive books for your school library.) The same goes for the artwork and posters displayed throughout the building. (Print our free posters celebrating the lives and accomplishments of Black scientists.)

“The ultimate goal is for every kid, no matter their interests, abilities, or where they come from, to feel like they belong in our buildings,” Dr. Hubbard says. “That’s the point of a positive culture, to make sure that every kid feels seen, heard, and loved. That might sound pie-in-the-sky, but it’s what we all should be working toward.’”

3. Support the Student Services Team

Student services teams—counselors, social workers, school psychologists, special-education staff—are going to be in even higher demand when school starts after the pandemic. Teachers aren’t trained to deal with students’ depression and anxiety. So schools are going to need to make sure they have qualified staff in place who can provide social-emotional support.

Teachers can help by having conversations with kids that don’t revolve around academics. This can be as simple as scheduling one-on-one time, just to ask how they’re doing. Dr. Hubbard suggests pairing every kid with an adult to whom they feel they can go with anything.

“Let’s be intentional about providing social-emotional support and not just throw a bunch of assessments in their face to find out where they are academically,” he says.

At Cary-Grove High School, where Lesinski is principal, teachers have been trained to recognize trauma and how it impacts kids' learning and brain development. “Students have been through a lot, and content is not necessarily the thing that is going to get them through this," says Lesinski. "Nor is it going to always help us build those necessary relationships that every student deserves.”

"Students have been through a lot, and content is not necessarily the thing that is going to get them through this."

Neil Lesinski Principal of Cary-Grove High School in Illinois

4. Rethink What Your School Represents

Take a second look at your school’s core values, Lesinski advises. Ask: What do we stand for? What does it mean to be an Eagle or a Hawk or (insert your school mascot here)? What makes our students unique? Have students, teachers, and parents weigh in. Then put together a list of guiding principles for students to follow.

In every Cary-Grove classroom hangs a poster highlighting the school’s pillars: self-advocacy, perseverance, integrity, engagement, responsibility, and citizenship. “Of course, we want students to be smart and focused on their careers and aspirations,” Lesinski says. “But at the end of the day, we want them to be really good people. We say that we want to create honorable students, not necessarily honor students.”

Lesinski rewards students who exemplify the school’s principles and makes a big deal when students show that they can "Be C-G” (Cary-Grove). Teachers nominate students who show leadership in class, mentor another student, volunteer for an organization like a senior living center, overcome a life obstacle, or simply show kindness. Students are called to the office, where they receive a certificate, a laptop sticker with the school logo, and T-shirt that says “Be C-G.” Lesinski even pens a thank-you letter.

The "Be C-G Pillars of Success" poster can be found in every classroom at Cary-Grove High School as well as inside many businesses in town. It was designed by a student. (Courtesy of Neil Lesinski)
Cary-Grove Principal Neil Lesinski writes thank-you notes to students who exemplify the school's success pillars. He wrote this note to recognize a student who organized a fundraiser. (Courtesy of Neil Lesinski)

5. Get School Staff on Board

If you want teachers’ support in building school culture, involve them in it. Some Cary-Grove teachers didn’t want to nominate students for rewards for picking up trash or helping others, because they felt students should do what’s right with no expectation of a pat on the back. But Lesinski knew teachers would change their mind if they saw the effect something as simple as a laptop sticker could have on a student. So he videotaped kids receiving their rewards and played them at staff meetings. He explained that some of the students who were recognized may never earn straight A’s or be the star of the basketball team. Recognition from a teacher may be the highlight of their year.

“When teachers see the kids and hear the story, they really buy into the idea,” Lesinski says. “These are small tokens of gratitude, but they mean the world to these kids. The following week, I had probably 100 kids coming to the office because teachers got the message.”

6. Remember the Teachers!

Teachers deserve recognition, too. Lesinski says Cary-Grove students have recognized teachers for extra tutoring, helping with college decisions, or for showing support during a challenging time. Parents have also shown their appreciation for teachers who are "always there for kids, providing guidance as a coach and a mentor," he says.

Here’s how the nomination process works. Students or parents usually write Lesinski an email describing how the teacher went above and beyond. Then, Lesinski gets to have some fun.

“I go into the teacher's classroom and embarrass them a little bit,” he says. “That’s one of the greatest joys as an administrator for me—going into teachers’ classrooms to honor their work and reward them in front of their students. The students always clap and cheer. Getting recognized for your work in front of your students—there may be nothing more valuable than that.”

More Ways to Build School Culture

Develop a long-term school culture plan using a checklist from ICLE Associate Partner Adam Drummond. Have more ideas on how to build a positive school culture? Email us at Shaped@hmhco.com or tweet us at @TheTeacherRoom.

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We understand that addressing the interrupted learning of this past school year presents a challenge for educators everywhere. This article is part of a series of resources focused on COVID learning recovery and designed to help you plan now for summer school and next year.

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