How to create a positive culture in schools and classrooms

Leading a group of people, whether in industry, as a school leader, or as a teacher in a class, you encounter people who are supportive and some who are in general opposition to what you want to do. Anthony Muhammad captures this idea very clearly in his book Transforming School Culture although it is applicable in every situation where you have to manage a group of people.

The key idea is that you can categorise people in three broad groups: believers, inbetweeners and opposers.

The believers are the ones who engage with your ideas and are optimistic about the chances of everyone improving as a result. They will typically engage with their work quietly but enthusiastically, often avoiding challenging more negative people around them as their energy tends to be focused on the task in hand.

Inbetweeners are those who are new in to the group. If it is a completely new role for them then they may take many months to decide where their loyalties lie and the level of their engagement and enthusiasm. Those who have come from a previous establishment will take less time to decide whether to assume a new position or whether to revert to the same type as they were previously.

Finally there are those who fall generally in to the opposition camp. They may be reluctant to follow your ideas and may complain and undermine your leadership or authority. Broadly, this group can be grouped in these four categories:

  • those who oppose some or all of the current ideas and policies because they do not know or believe the reason behind them,
  • those who will not engage with new initiatives due to a lack of trust or belief in the leadership,
  • those who are too anxious to engage with any new ideas due to their own stress or lack of ability to cope,
  • those who define themselves by their opposition to certain ideology, to leadership, or to change.

I’m sure you can identify people in your organisation or students in your class who are clear examples of these types, and others who take up different roles in different situations.

For any leader or teacher it is vitally important that you gradually change the culture of your organisation or class so that the believers hold sway. If the opposition becomes dominant then everything becomes a battle of will – an unpleasant and unproductive situation.

The first important step in improving this balance is to identity your believers. Publicly and privately support and praise these positive individuals and put them with new members of the group or class (the inbetweeners). If you can give your believers the confidence to stand up to the destructive negativity of the opposition then it makes a massive difference to the culture of the group. In fact if someone who is being negative realises that they are losing social status by doing so then it is one of the most powerful ways to change their behaviour. This will only happen following your lead. It is very important that every leader and teacher stands up firmly to reject back-biting and destructive negativity, while being entirely open to reasonable discussion and criticism.

The next step is to try and win round your opposition. The first type simply need to be heard and engaged openly. Often an honest discussion and explanation of both the reasons and long term plan behind any new ideas will be enough to win these people round. When teachers make a change in working style they often have to appeal to the students to be patient, try out the new style, and take it on trust that things will improve. When management impose new requirements that will be initially difficult then once again they may need to draw on trust that has been built up.

The second type are opposing things precisely because they don’t trust the person leading them. Every teacher has experienced a class of students who have low levels of trust and refuse to cooperate with any new ideas as they don’t feel valued and don’t believe that their interests are being considered. The key here is to genuinely and honestly engage and listen, to try and make amends for previous breaches of trust, to demonstrate your trust in your students or colleagues, and to recognise their hard work and effort through both structured and spontaneous praise/recognition. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a short time to lose it. A key task of any teacher or leader is to try and build good rapport and a high level of trust so that at difficult moments of change or stress they can draw on this. The best teachers are seen as fair and trustworthy and their students genuinely believe that they are doing their best for them. This will have been demonstrated repeatedly. The same is entirely true of leaders of adults.

The third group may or may not feel that the leader or teacher is trustworthy and that the rules are sound but they simply don’t believe in their own ability to succeed, and would rather stand in opposition rather than be exposed. Some students typically truant or misbehave when they don’t believe they can do the work required of them. Fear of failure leads to a failure to engage. In some schools you see teachers who are afraid to try new things as they are so lacking in confidence in their own existing abilities that they dare not move away from their existing practice which is marginally less terrifying and depressing than something new. This is a difficult group to win around as you have to first of all build up their own ability and self-confidence. This requires a large amount of trust, commitment and belief from a mentor, teacher or leader. There are deeply psychological elements to be dealt with here, both to gradually build a sense of greater wellbeing and to instil an ability to recognise and deal with internal negativity.

The final type of opposition will usually have started out as one of the previous three types, but in an absence of any suitable engagement they have begun to define themselves as a ‘rebel’ or as someone whose duty it is to oppose leadership or certain ideology. Once in this state of mind it is incredibly difficult for leaders and teachers to engage with this type of person as they (the leader) are viewed as the source of all problems. In order for this sort of person to engage they would have to give up part of their identity, to admit they are wrong, and to effectively apologise for much that they have done. This is incredibly difficult to do. Often the best solution here is to give someone a brand new start elsewhere (as an inbetweener) with a lot of hard work to pair them with believers and build trust. If these students or colleagues have to stay in place then the only other way is to attempt to positively define them in other ways in the hope that they take this new identity on board. For a persistent rebellious student this may be by finding opportunities for them to succeed, by trying new activities, or by encouraging peers to engage first. This type of person will be naturally suspicious that any engagement will be an attempt to get them to give up their identity though.

Leadership roles (including teaching) are incredibly demanding even before these people-management skills are considered, but with a little conscious thought about the type of people you lead or teach you can find more appropriate ways to bring about positive change.

2 Replies to “How to create a positive culture in schools and classrooms”

  1. An excellent dissection of classroom culture! This type of ‘deeper’ look into the behavior of the opposition allows the teachers to view things at varying perspectives. I enjoyed the nuanced steps to winning the “opposition camp” as you put it. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Nothing here that wouldn’t get my agreement save perhaps for the over emphasis on the opposers. This group are a significant factor but often not as significant in number or power as leaders can imagine them to be. In my experience it is the inbetweeners that require most input and responsible, effective and pyschological leadership of them means they become closer to the leader and the believers and there is no void for opposers – who often occupy the pyschological space – to fill so they either fall silent or get on board. Not to say detractors aren’t worthy of some attention but too much focus on them can be at the expense of others and paralysing for leaders, especially those that are less experienced or confident. Cheers! @colingoffin

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