Building Culture Through Language

As the new school year begins, I have found myself thinking a lot about how to most effectively build and maintain a positive school culture which fosters personal responsibility. At my current school, we have quite a few new staff this year which has been an opportunity to revisit and refocus on our school values and vision and start “fresh” in some ways. It has been a very positive start, so now the question I am asking myself is “what is the most effective way I, as a leader, can promote personal responsibility throughout the academic year for both teachers and students?”

I was recently reading a blog post by Marlene Chism, the author of the book Stop Workplace Drama. In this post she talks about the role language plays in supporting workplace culture. One of the things that really stuck with me was the following quote, “The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.” She quotes Dr. Edgar Schein as saying “If you are trying to transform culture you have entered a black hole.” Often leaders try to shift culture by attempting to course correct behaviors, but as Chism points out, the root of the problem can generally be found by listening to the language. If you listen to the language and start there, you will find that you have more power to course correct and, as a result, eventually shift culture.

The root is thought, the stem is behavior, and the bloom is culture.”

So how does this apply to my context—I have already said that we have a positive school start to the school year—and what does this have to do with promoting personal responsibility?

As any good leader knows, a positive school culture does not just happen by chance—it must be cultivated and nurtured. In my experience, a common theme among schools with a great culture and positive climate is that teachers feel a sense of ownership over, and therefore responsibility, for the what happens in the school and work they do with students. In short, they have a voice.

If we facilitate the use of responsible language within our organizations, we will be sowing the seeds for growing and maintaining positive behaviors which leads to a positive, responsible culture.

Chism writes that responsible language has four core components: absence of blame, forward moving, empowered, and respectful.

Absence of Blame

How are we, as leaders, creating an environment where people feel empowered to make a decision or try something new, own that decision or choice, and the outcome—for better or worse? How are we supporting teacher agency in all aspects of our work with children? How is our language empowering people to reflect on actions and/or practice in order to move them forward?

Forward Moving

When designing professional development opportunities, planning staff meetings, and having teacher growth conversations, how are we connecting back to our school goals, mission, and vision? Are we clearly communicating what is expected to all stakeholders? Are the connections between our schools goals and our current work being made visible? As a leader, are we keeping our conversations with others “forward moving”?


Chism says that complaining is always a sign of disempowerment—that people either don’t know what they want or they don’t think they have the power to get it. Maybe a better statement for the school context is that people know what they would like, but don’t feel empowered to propose a change. What are we doing as leaders to promote a culture of collaboration? Are people encouraged to share new ideas or questions with colleagues and get feedback? Is administrator feedback on teaching and learning empowering and forward moving or compliance orientated?


Are we being proactive or reactive in our own conversations? Is our language focused on building bridges rather than barriers? Are we consistently practicing active listening? How are we reinforcing norms of respect and humanity?

What are your thoughts? What are you doing in your school to build a positive, empowered community of learners?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s