The job description of principal includes a lengthy list of actions and responsibilities, such as budget preparation, building maintenance, staff selection, training, evaluation, and community outreach. Day-to-day schedules are disrupted by student needs and unexpected visitors and meetings.

All of these duties, whether expected or not, support the most fundamental job of a school leader: student achievement. Only by creating a consistent and widely understood culture of learning will a principal find true success.

The Principal as Learning Leader

Even though the goal of every committed educator is to help students succeed, former teacher and principal, author Peter DeWitt voiced concern that educators spend too much time talking about the adult problems in schools. These topics include curriculum selection and roll-out, parents, collegial relationships (or lack thereof), evaluation systems and testing.

Although these topics deserve discussion, even debate, DeWitt believes, “If we really want to establish a culture of learning, we need to change our conversations in school from the teacher to the student. Teachers are vitally important, but our jobs are to focus on making sure all students are reaching their potential, which is not an easy task.” The culture of learning is weighed down by the issues of school and teaching.

As the school leader, principals must shift that focus. A principal, leading by example, must initiate and promote conversations that intentionally put students first, looking at the other issues as merely systems needed to support student success.

Creating a Culture of Learning

It can be difficult for school leaders to be involved in individual classroom activities. Keeping in touch with students and their teachers, however, is critical to the development and continuation of a culture of learning. Principals must not only be aware of what is happening in the classroom, they must also facilitate and encourage opportunities in which students can learn. Here are a few ways they can make it clear that learning is the goal:

  • Provide the time, equipment and materials students need to learn.
  • Set high and clear expectations.
  • Expect and accept mistakes as part of the learning process. Share your own successes and failures.
  • Give students opportunities to create their own learning path. To the extent reasonable, let teachers and students determine how best to learn the expected concepts and strategies.
  • Allow plenty of opportunities for teachers to share progress with students. Just as athletes perform even better to beat their own best, students will be more invested in their learning if they are aware of their progress.
  • Make learning a community effort. Healthy, friendly competition between students or groups is one way to encourage growth. When students know each other well and can work together, an atmosphere of camaraderie develops, creating relationships built on more than cliques and appearance.

Paying Attention to Teachers

Even though the focus of conversations should not be adult problems and frustrations, it is important that school leaders acknowledge teacher concerns. When you acknowledge and celebrate higher scores, reading progress and the achievement of classroom goals, teachers believe that their hard work is worthwhile.

Provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate. School-improvement days in which outside presenters encourage working with people “at your table” is not sufficient for teachers to feel empowered. Principals must send the message that they care, refusing to let teachers slip into isolation, feel detached and become discouraged.

Listen to teachers. One principal, interviewed by author Shelly Habegger, asked for teacher input to improve reading comprehension and then used the suggestions to create action plans. “Because the principal valued the expertise of the teachers and allowed the latitude to try new approaches, an unbroken cycle of continuous improvement was observed in the building. The culture was one where the teachers felt their opinions mattered and felt comfortable enough to take risks and try new methods.”

A Learning Culture Has No Boundaries

A true “culture of learning” cannot be restricted to the four walls of the classroom, or even the building. Including parents, caregivers and the community in the process of learning develops understanding and trust between all stakeholders, from administration to after-school daycare workers.

This element of communication is also one of the keys to keeping the culture of learning active year after year. As students progress through the grade levels at the same school, their families and communities become an increasingly bigger part of the process. When a student enters school in August, knowing that the expectations are high and the enthusiasm for achievement is shared by all — just like it was on the last day of school in June — the momentum of progress is not interrupted.

Celebrate Success

It may seem as if celebrating success is logical and does not need mentioning. In a building with enrollment in the hundreds, however, it may be difficult for a principal to acknowledge even huge academic gains on an individual basis. But, without taking the time and effort to share in the excitement of achievement, principals lose a golden opportunity to promote that culture of learning.

Educators who earn a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Eastern Michigan University develop the skills required to create building systems and budgets to provide adequately for students and staff. You will learn about school law and data collection. But perhaps one of the most important lessons you will learn is how to “develop, advocate, and enact a shared mission, vision, and core values of high-quality education and academic success.” You will have the tools to create a culture of learning at your school.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan Master of Arts in Educational Leadership online program.


NAESP: The Principal’s Role in Successful Schools: Creating a Positive School Culture

Education Week: Are You Creating a Culture of Learning?

Edutopia: 32 Strategies for Building a Positive Learning Environment

Educational Leadership: Seven Strategies for Building Positive Classrooms

The Highly Effective Teacher: Creating a Positive Classroom Culture