We are a Catholic school but we do not have a homogenous culture. Our school is a decile 6 integrated school drawing from a large geographic, urban/rural and socio-economic range as well as having a large range of different cultures and ethnicities within the school. This gives colour and vibrancy to our school community.
We have a strong vision, “Reach for the Stars as Lifelong Learners in the Catholic Faith,” and this unites our purpose. Our school is a Dominican school started by the Dominican sisters in Oamaru in 1884. The Dominican order has the motto, “Veritas” meaning truth and a tradition of social justice and academic excellence. In many ways this tradition is kept alive in the school through the working of the Parish and through the generational effects of families moving through the school, staff who attended the school as students and purposefully through school leadership actions.
Over the past few years we have had a turnover of about 50 students a year in and out of the school which can change climate considerably. We have also had a period of high staff turnover. We are taking steps to reduce this.
Refocusing on the core values and mission of the school, I believe, has reinforced the culture but our climate can still change day to day. We have some historic issues which mean we presently have to keep a tight rein on some senior behaviours and attitudes and we need all hands on deck to do this. For instance, we can have very challenging days when leadership is temporarily absent or when a student or group of students are out of sorts for reasons beyond school. On those days our climate can change considerably due to elements at odds with our culture.
Our school has pressure from its community in different ways. Some members of our community see it as a school of choice, others as the extension of their Catholic faith, and others again as a cultural alignment.
I believe the 10 influencing cultural norms (Stoll and Fink, cited in Stoll, 1998) are strong in our school on the whole. We believe in excellence and so we aim for high standards in teaching and learning and the professional expectations are very high. We also believe in social justice and the particular dignity of the least served. This leads, I believe, to an above and beyond commitment by our staff.
As many staff members contribute to the school culture out of their own sense of faith commitment and vocation, there is definitely a sense of “going the extra mile,” but at times this can be exhausting and stressful.
Managing this balance is a dilemma for leadership. This year we have developed systems around overall school wellbeing which are helping us to meet needs in a systematic manner. We have a focus on teams and a sense that the children belong to all of us and we support each other in our journey. We also have a sense that our school climate, particularly in the older years, does not always reflect our school culture and we are specifically working towards structural elements which will improve our climate for the future – for instance smaller classes in the juniors, enrolment processes which decrease the high turnover, a growing sense of explicit expectation of support from our community for our culture (only just begun) and an emphasis on getting our culture embedded in the early years at school.
Stoll. (1998). School Culture. School Improvement Network’s Bulletin 9. Institute of Education, University of London. Retrieved from http://www.educationalleaders.govt.nz/Culture/Understanding-school-cultures/School-Culture