How can schools create a vibrant staff culture?

“School leaders must never forget: nothing is more important than your people”

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo


The Goose and the Golden Eggs

Aesop’s fable

One day, a man found a glittering golden egg in his goose’s nest. At first, he thought it was a trick, but to his delight it turned out that it was pure gold. Every morning, he awakened to rush to the nest and find another golden egg. He became fabulously wealthy – and terribly impatient. Thinking to get all the gold at once, he killed the goose, and opened it to find nothing. There were no golden eggs inside – and now there was no way to get any more. He had destroyed the very thing that produced them.

Within this fable is a key principle of school effectiveness. Sustained excellence is a function of two things: what is produced (the golden eggs) and the capacity to produce (the goose). If schools focus on producing golden eggs (short-term results) and neglect the goose (enduring relationships and continual renewal) they will soon be without the asset that produces the golden eggs.

A speech I heard last year by Dame Sally Coates, headteacher at Burlington Danes Academy, struck me as a great example of striking this balance between results, relationships and renewal. She recommended using a checklist of non-negotiables for leadership teams in inner-city schools. She urged schools to draw up their own checklist, and shared hers as an example:

1. There are no excuses for underachievement.

2. Always ask the key question: what’s best for the child?

3. The teacher’s role is to lead by example.

4. There can be no learning if there’s misbehaviour.

5. Teaching is a passionate and rigorous craft: you can always improve, so leave your doors open.

6. We must celebrate success as a community and family.

7. We expect a lot, and give a lot back.

An anecdote from the school I work in shows that they get the right balance on staff culture and student results. At the end of the year, they held a ceremony where staff members who had given long service to the school were recognised. I could hardly believe my eyes. Teachers who had been teaching at the school for five years and ten years came up, to heartfelt appreciation from us. Teachers who had been at the school for fifteen and twenty years came up, to much applause. The head kept reading out the list: twenty-five years and thirty years, and still a fair number of teachers were coming up to the front to be recognised with great admiration. One teacher had actually been at the school for forty years. And these were not people who had long ago stopped caring; all of them were still learning, improving and contributing, often above and beyond expectations. For an inner-city London school, which often have high turnovers of up to 50% annually, and huge churn, this was quite astonishing. The phenomenal staff retention means the relationship with the kids is high on trust; many teachers had taught older siblings and even parents of the current cohort. High retention and rapport are powerful explanations of their great results: 72% A*-C at GCSE including English and Maths, and just a 1% gap between poorer and wealthier pupils in their GCSE attainment. How might other schools recreate this vibrant mix of great results and strong relationships?

Last week in this blog, I looked at student ethos as a collection of habits. I think staff culture is a similar conglomeration of habits. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo from the Uncommon School network of inner-city schools in the USA argues that ‘careful development of habits builds a strong community.’ But what habits matter most?

Two of the biggest challenges in developing a vibrant staff culture are inconsistency and burnout. On inconsistency, I have shown in this post on behaviour how damaging it is for pupil learning when consequences are not followed through on. As Tom Bennett says, there are often two schools within schools: the school of the SLT or veteran teachers, and the school of the NQT or supply teacher. It’s damaging for kids’ education when lessons with SLT or veterans are calm, but trainee or supply teachers are chaotic. Consistency of tone – being on a similar wavelength in developing student ethos and building pupils’ behavioural and cognitive habits – is a key challenge for staff culture.


Burnout is another challenge I see teachers in tough schools often confronting, that staff culture does much either to accelerate or address. Many challenging schools expect a lot of teachers, from administrative data-entry through pastoral tutoring and school trips to surrogate parenting, through planning, resourcing, marking, following up on behaviour and putting up new displays. Complexity comes with the territory. Many teachers, especially in their first few years of teaching end up burning the midnight oil creating resources, losing evenings, weekends and social lives. Preventing overwork, burnout and high teacher turnover is the other key challenge I see for staff culture in schools in challenging circumstances.

On consistency, there might just be a little to be learned from the private sector. Coffee companies like Starbucks have long confronted the challenge of consistency. Like Sally Coates’ checklist, Starbucks defined precisely what service their employees would give to guide their interactions with customers:

  • Be welcoming
  • Be genuine
  • Be knowledgeable
  • Be considerate
  • Be involved

They then gave these little cards out to all staff and integrated these habits into their recruitment, induction, training, development, recognition, reward and remuneration policies. They’re now renowned for some of the highest quality service of any organisation in the world.


Similarly, a school might want to come up with their own short checklist of staff habits they’d like all teachers to show in interactions with pupils, parents, colleagues and visitors. The killer questions for Bambrick-Santoyo are: ‘when teachers talk with friends or family, what do you want them to say? How do you want them to feel?’ He says teachers should…

  • feel motivated and driven to succeed
  • feel supported by and supportive of colleagues in improving student achievement
  • know the school’s mission and be unified in putting it into practice
  • consistently get the message that staff culture is a priority

I think the majority of teachers might want to be saying something like: “I feel very positive and proud of our school. I feel really supported and involved. I’m still learning, and I want to keep improving.” So, for instance, a school might define these as the key qualities for their staff:

  • Be positive
  • Be authoritative
  • Be supportive
  • Be proud
  • Be committed

Although these five are just examples, I thought of them because they seem to me to address the things that impact badly on learning: staff who are unhappy, out of control in lessons, isolated from colleagues, not very proud of their school, not involved enough in kids’ lives outside of the classroom, or not really committed to improving their teaching.  Once these qualities are defined, recruitment, induction, CPD and recognition policies should align with them: though that’s the tricky part.


In meeting the challenge of complexity, we might have a little to learn in schools from a company like Apple, whose principle of simplicity is a key component of success. In Insanely Simple, says: ‘what sets Apple apart from other technology companies and what makes Apple stand out in a complicated world: a deep belief in the power of simplicity as a driving force, guiding light, goal, work style and a measuring stick. People prefer simplicity. Given the option, most people will choose the simple path over one that’s more complicated. People crave this kind of clarity. ’ That’s why both my 94 year-old gran and my 4 year-old cousin can pick up an ipad and work out how it works – the icons are insanely simple.

One route to preventing burnout for teachers might cutting through the complexity with this principle of simplicity. The main time-drains for teachers can be simplified. Display can be simplified by designing enduring quotations, timelines or images on permanent backings that last for six years rather than the six-week cycle of displaying pupil work. Instead of teachers reinventing the wheel and endlessly re-resourcing lessons, departments could co-plan lesson packs as a baseline for schemes of work that would simplify teacher’s workload considerably. Much more could be done to simplify behaviour systems so that they prevent escalation of disruption. Simplifying systems leads to a happier staff culture.


“Our lives are frittered away by detail: simplify, simplify”

Henry David Thoreau


After all, simplicity actually helps consistency. As in Aesop’s fable, we must nurture the goose of a vibrant staff culture if we want the golden eggs of student results.


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education, Staff Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How can schools create a vibrant staff culture?

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  2. I don’t usually disagree with your blogs (don’t really disagree with this one….except)……the issue isn’t, in my opinion, complexity or simplicity….it is focus. The thing is, a clear focus can make things look as if simplicity is the driving force; in that when the focus is clearly defined and clearly stated, and consequences clearly follow, people know where they are. They also know what is really important and it helps them prioritise and use their time in a focused way. However, ‘Focus’ will lead to simplification. The problem with choosing ‘simplicity’ per se as the description of what might be required is exactly what we see in the blog – the start of prescription – for example, “Display can be simplified by designing enduring quotations, timelines or images on permanent backings that last for six years rather than the six-week cycle of displaying pupil work”. That’s fine if it is clear that changing the displays every six weeks is a distraction, but if the approach leads to an injunction or rule ‘no display changes’, then we have a problem. Different people have different strengths and different approaches. Beware of unintended consequences.

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  7. Staff culture really does permeate from the top down, but it can be encouraged to be reciprocal. I was reading ‘Student Centred Leadership’ recently which is strong on putting ‘education’ back into educational leadership. There was a strong sense that school leaders having pedagogical and knowledge of curricula was crucial in decision making in schools. Not only that, the sharing of pedagogy and talk about teaching and learning, educational research and methods, particularly from a Head teacher, can enrich the whole staff culture.

    I see a vibrancy surrounding networks like NTEN, in-house research, action research spreading in some schools. I hope we can better find and share the bright spots in our schools and beyond. If I contribute anything to school leadership in the coming years I would really hope for a legacy of shared communication based around teaching and learning. Thinking about strategies now!

  8. KB says:

    One might argue that for the many teachers, burnout isn’t so much the issue in most schools. Rather, if one is being mentally drained by constant abuse all day and one’s senior team doesn’t support, and sometimes undermines, then one doesn’t feel valued. Those staff on senior teams are saying all I care about is myself and whether you stay or leave is of no interest to me. Feeling valued is key to wanting to stay in a job.

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  10. wendymaria says:

    We need to recognise the professionalism of our staff and nurture and develop the wealth of talent that is sometimes just under the surface- not a dissimilar task to that of getting the best from our pupils. Have a look at what David Jones is doing at Meols Cop High School in Southport.

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  12. 4c3d says:

    What does the staffroom say about school culture. Is yours the Mary Celeste or a place of idea exchange and energy? My experience has always been that you can learn a lot about he culture of a school by visiting the staffroom. Happy and engaged staff = happy and engaged learners. You can read my take and experiences here:

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