Achieving a Cultural Shift

By Timothy Glare- Vice Principal at China World Academy, Changshu, China.

No one wants to be the ‘bad guy’, but as a school leader, when it comes to making changes in school culture, having the courage of your convictions is everything.  I always as myself two simple questions:


  1. Is it good for the students? 
  2. Is it good for the school? 

If a clear rationale is not present, it’s time for that leadership instinct to kick in.

Changing Negative School Cultures 

I am sure that nearly every head or principal, often at the beginning of a new position, has experienced a moment when they realise that there is an embedded issue that has a disproportionately negative effect on their school culture. This can often be a surprisingly simple question, for example, regarding timetables, accessibility of facilities or/and supervision. It is especially difficult when that culture is embedded and protected by gatekeepers whose identity and, in their mind, personal legitimacy, is strongly linked. 

Building Core Support. 

It’s always wise to gauge the current school position with your school board, owner, or governors.  Perhaps you were appointed not as a continuation option, but for your ambience or steel of purpose to make real changes that they have shyly hoped for from previous leaders.  Some governors and boards will spell this out at interview stage, whereas others may presume you will charge ahead without giving you explicit support, being more comfortable with the cloak of deniable plausibility in case of backlash. Experience has taught me in East Asia especially, an explicit remit of change may sometimes be seen as an admittance of previous poor oversight, mistakes, and complacency by the school’s previous leaders, so the message may be implied much more subtly. 

Confident Decision Making

After a sounding out period with staff and students, and your conviction on making a change remains, then one should become comfortable with acting. The alternative may end up corroding your self-worth as a confident leader. That would mean entering into an unhealthy collusion with the problem, as those who may have been weaker than you already did. Enabling terrible policies not out of ignorance, but from cowardice, is unforgivable in a leader.  

Communication is Everything

In Leading Your International School – the authors successfully used the narrative of Haidilao to carefully articulate the importance of communication to your overall vision. One should never underestimate the necessity to invest great effort into clearly explaining to all school stakeholders the reasons for any serious changes made. Clarity of communication and visible effort to explain one’s rationale is a sign of respect for others, and a core skill for any school leader. 

The Mission Comes First- Nothing Personal

With any ‘big change’ there may be a period of turmoil, especially if related to the relinquishing of an unjustified privilege or practice. Often though, the oil tanker of change can be metaphorically turned around much more quickly than first envisaged, as the weight of consensus tips in favour of the new policy. It is always important to remember that most people are not highly invested in policy when it has no direct impact on them. 

Wider Impact 

It is often the case, when a school requires a ‘big change event’ there are numerous other problems cascading from it. Perhaps the origin of the problem was related to false narratives and priorities, or perhaps self-serving practices. However, one must be wary of allowing mission and message fatigue to drain one’s energy and dilute impact. The big change will have the benefit of sending a subliminal message to the wider community about your seriousness of intent and determination as a leader. 

Once the balance has been tipped, others who were afraid to previously voice their concern over certain practices will feel emboldened to add to the momentum of reform, react with new enthusiasm and energetically offer solutions in other areas they are passionate about. That is always wonderful, as a head can then step back and let positive changes occur organically once the cultural shift has taken place.

Timothy Glare is the  Vice Principal Student Life, China World Academy, Changshu, China

You can connect with him on the following Social Handles: 


WeChat: TimGlare

1 thought on “<strong>Achieving a Cultural Shift</strong>”

  1. As an international school parent, I can’t agree more with Mr. Glare! The key factor for me in choosing a school is school culture and atmosphere. Like most parents, before we consider kids learning outcomes, academic rigor, we will always pay attention to the ‘user experience ‘, are my kids happy to go to school? and how’s the students wellbeing? Is this school centered on student development? It’s inspiring for me to read article like this, which gives me so much more confidence in international education and it’s so touching to see another school is totally responsible for students, passionate about education.

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