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Leadership and Creating Culture Through Student Voice

Dr. Jaime Brianna Pustis
Leadership and Creating Culture Through Student Voice

What does it take to be a successful leader today in the ever-changing landscape of schools and the world? The answer to this question is not simple, nor should it be, as leadership represents a complex, diverse, and potentially challenging role. In order to serve their community in a multitude of ways, a successful school leader must be able to adapt, reflect, innovate, listen, and so much more.

In my experience, school culture is the single most important factor influencing the success of every aspect of a school. It defines what is important, communicates to community members the values of an institution, clarifies expected behaviors, and brings a community together around unified goals. I’ve learned that one of the most significant ways that school leaders, specifically principals, can serve their communities is through the active development of a positive school culture. Even more specifically, it is through a school culture which nourishes, creates space for, and supports student voice. Student voice creates a greater sense of belonging for their students, teachers, and other stakeholders.

Creating Culture 

As one of the most important aspects of a school, culture can empower, unite, and support high achievement and wellbeing. When a school’s culture is strong, expectations and values are clear to all members and support each member of an organization to find success.

Students often learn about values, norms, and the concept of belonging through their experiences in their school’s culture. However, when students come to a new school in a new country, it can be difficult to find that sense of belonging. This, in turn, can impact their sense of safety, engagement, and connection to a community and institution. Positive school culture can help with that transition and create a school environment in which everyone feels welcome, one which sets high expectations for all community members, and builds the capacity for all students and teachers to believe in the ability of every student to find great success.

Belonging and Growth

In order to develop this sense of belonging and positive school culture, schools can provide opportunities for students to grow and share their voice and support them in the development of their own identity. When students have the space to engage in change and innovation, it creates a school culture in which students feel empowered to impact their learning journey.

When a school seeks to grow and change, its culture gives direction as to what innovation fits the community’s goals. Grounding this evolution in the voice of students engages a greater variety of perspectives and creates an opportunity to better serve the students.

Relationships and Reflection

Leaders have a great influence over their school’s culture and, subsequently, a significant impact on student wellbeing, sense of belonging, and success. To support the development of these cultures, leaders must take the time to reflect on their own practices and the impact these behaviors have on the culture around them. The ability to intentionally develop and maintain positive school culture takes significant time, experience, and knowledge. It cannot be done alone.

I have found that one of the most important skills that leaders can focus on growing is their ability to build and nurture relationships. Through strong relationships, leaders can have an awareness of the needs of every member of the community, an understanding of constructive ways to meet those needs, and a connection to those that can most effectively help carry out change.

Next Steps

  • Community goals:

While addressing school culture, it is key to bring the community together around the same goals. An effective change leader will set clear expectations while inspiring others to believe in the need for change and engage in the work ahead. To build that ownership and engagement in a culture shift, a leader's communication needs to be inclusive, inviting, and supportive.

  • Hiring practices:

The ability to intentionally develop and maintain positive school culture takes significant time, experience, and knowledge. Educators need a variety of experiences, resources, and time in order to successfully navigate the complexity of cultural change and maintenance. Leaders have an impact on some of the people they bring into the community. Diversity in the teachers recruited is one way to ensure the representation of varying perspectives. This, in turn, leads to the empowerment of more voices in schools.

  • Including all student voices:

Often, the voices of the most confident, present, privileged students are the loudest. Creating a school culture that values and creates space for all voices supports all students in feeling valued, seen, and heard.

Developing a positive school culture that focuses on student voice is a never-ending process. Culture must be continuously nourished, assessed, and rebuilt. As students change each year, as goals are refocused, and as teachers come and go, the needs of school communities change. A school culture built upon student voice, therefore, must shift to meet the needs of the continuously changing student population. A strong school culture is vital to student wellbeing and leaders need to step up to support this vital component of the educational journey of students. This requires leaders to continuously reflect on their practice of how they are supporting their community and take active steps towards improving and growing.

Read more about how developing and engaging student voice in schools is an incredible opportunity for students to drive the change they need in a rapidly evolving world in Student Voice: What Drives Change? And look into how one school uses student voice as an innovative opportunity to create meaningful and impactful change in Student Voice: A Case Study of the American School of Guatemala.



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Dr. Jaime Brianna Pustis is an educator and leader in international schools. She is currently the high school principal at the American School of Guatemala. She has worked and traveled internationally with her husband, Rob, and their fox terrier, Brindisi, for the last 15 years. She is passionate about human centered leadership, school culture, and student voice in driving change in schools.


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