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Clarity and Toxic School Cultures

A while back I sat down with another podcaster and school consultant, Hal Bowman, to discuss the relationship between clarity and toxic school culture.

I’d like to share with you my recent thoughts on how toxic school cultures can impact learning in the long haul and provide a few helpful solutions.

Clarity in Communication

No one intends to obfuscate their communication. No one intends to confuse their school. Instead, we intentionally plan events and use tools that give clarity.

We know clarity prevents a toxic school culture.

Sometimes a map gives clarity. Sometimes a message gives clarity. A conversation, a plan, a meeting — these also provide clarity, sometimes.

Rarely do teams have clarity at the outset of a venture. Sometimes they don’t even know the quest has begun.

Teachers are gathered into a room, asked a few questions, and next thing you know, they are on a quest to boost some apparently random metric. Next week, the same team is in a different meeting with a different facilitator, discussing a different topic, and are pointed to a different metric. A month later, the pattern continues.

Meet. New topic. New metric. Each month or so, something new often under the guise of “flexibility” and “adapting to students”.

While the school leader may be seeking innovation and effectiveness. The school staff are perceiving pendulum swings and uncertainty.

The mismatch in intent can become the seedbed of a toxic school culture.

Questions to consider:

  • If the target always changes, can there be clarity of purpose?
  • If the topic always changes, does it muddy the message?
  • If the leaders are lacking cohesion at the outset, what does this magnify along the way?

Obscurity. Opacity. Generality.

These are the enemies of clarity and are easy to come by if there’s no clarity at the outset.

Tips for School Culture

School culture isn’t built. It isn’t created — it’s already there. It’s the outgrowth of foundational factors (which we’ll discuss below).

School culture is, however, crafted.

You can craft culture using a few strategies and principles. Here are a few to consider:

  • SGI
  • Clarity
  • Conditioning
  • Avoid the But What Abouts
  • Avoid Rubbernecking

These five strategies are discussed in yesterday’s podcast.

Here are three more essential strategies and principles for crafting school culture:

  • Focus on Hearts, Not Smarts
  • Be a Storyteller of your School’s Success
  • Eradicate Fear of Failure

I know, easier said than done. And the purpose of this list isn’t to imply there’s a simple “plug and play” way to avoid a toxic school culture.

Healthy School Culture is Built on Trust

Beneath the surface of strategies is the foundation of school culture.

There’s no amount of morale magic or motivation tactics that can change the tide of a major foundational factor: trust.

Involved leaders create engaged people. When people are engaged, they trust that the organization will consider their human needs in pursuit of accomplishing objectives.

Leaders in a school set the tone for trust by being transparent, showing vulnerability, asking questions, sincerely listening, and setting clear and predictably measured outcomes.

Here are four questions on my mind. I’m curious what your thoughts are. Leave me a comment below.

  • How can you be involved in things that matter most?
  • How can you build leadership capacity, so more school leaders are involved?
  • What are the human needs in your organization?
  • How do you gauge organizational trust?



Creator, learner, family man, and educator. School Leadership Podcast: Mafost Mashup. Writer at

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Matt Foster

Creator, learner, family man, and educator. School Leadership Podcast: Mafost Mashup. Writer at