Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 2 – 2020-21

From the AWSP Executive Director

Cracking the Code for School Culture
How to keep your eye on what matters most
Dr. Scott Seaman
Executive Director, AWSP
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Engaging Families and Communities, Closing the Gap
We don’t need fancy research studies or mountains of data to tell us the important role culture plays in highly impactful schools. But if it isn’t rocket science, then why do so many schools struggle with creating and sustaining a positive school culture?

Hate to say it, but it’s all about leadership. The culture of the school rises and falls with leadership in the school. Whether that’s the principal or the leadership team, it doesn’t matter, the burden of creating culture sits heavily on the shoulders of the building leaders. That doesn’t mean the burden is carried alone, but it does start, and unfortunately, end with the building leader. Creating a culture isn’t an overnight process. Creating culture takes time, persistence, perseverance, and a five year (and beyond) vision for the school. Culture takes relationships, trust, and a unilateral, unwavering common belief that each and every student is capable of success, no exceptions. Culture isn’t fancy posters on the wall indicating a belief in all kids. It’s the belief manifested through actions and interactions between adults and students. This is where culture often becomes unattainable for some leaders and schools because of the heavy reliance on relationships. And not just adult relationships, but authentic relationships with students as an integral and ongoing part of sustaining school culture. You want to know what kids think about their school? Don’t ask the adults: Go ask the students. You want to know what learning feels like as a student? Ask the students. You want to know what not feeling included, engaged, or heard feels like? Ask the students. You want to find out which adults like and don’t like kids? Ask the students. Principals can easily get swept up into the daily grind and demands of the adults in the school and as a consequence, slowly lose touch with the students. It’s way too easy to lose track of the importance of making daily investments into building and maintaining relationships. A principal who is not deeply connected into a relationship of interdependence with students will have an extremely hard time pushing the boulder of culture up and over the hill. It’s actually nearly impossible and contributes to high rates of principal turnover. I asked a group of recent high school graduates my favorite question in the world, “Who was your favorite principal and why?” This question has been and will always be the key indicator of how well a principal connected with kids. I can usually tell in about two seconds what kind of answer I’m going to get from the students when asked. They are either beaming from ear to ear excited to share with me about their amazing principal or they are staring blindly off into space trying to even remember the name of the adult with the radio.
As a member of AWSP, you have direct access to incredible programs and resources to help you authentically engage your students in walking with you in the creation and maintenance of school culture.
Each time I ask students this question, one or all of us end up with tears in our eyes because of the significant role or impact principals played in their lives. I always hear words like real, genuine, respectful, caring, knew-my-name, approachable, authentic, funny, and my favorite, unconditional. I talk to students all over the state and country about the impact of principals and assistant principals. Those conversations inspire us at AWSP to keep pushing on the system to recognize the important role building leaders play in the lives of both students and adults. So, where should a leader begin in the creation of culture? Start with and stay with the students. Create systems where students have access and opportunities to authentically engage as co-leaders of the school. Their voice not only matters but should matter the most. Create a Principal's Advisory Council made up of a wide array of students. But don’t stop there. Break that council into eight subgroups each representing one of the criteria of the AWSP Leadership Framework. Are you seeing this yet? You now have a student-led committee focused on Creating Culture, Ensuring School Safety, Planning w/ Data, Aligning Curriculum, Improving Instruction, Managing Resources, Engaging the Community, and Closing Gaps. Picture what that looks like to have a committee of students in your school singularly focused on “Improving Instruction.” The sky's the limit on what that group might tackle and how they might work collaboratively with the Creating Culture and Planning w/ Data Committees. Mind-blowing possibilities. As you, the lead learner of the learning organization, work closely with each and every student on this council, the word spreads among both students and staff about how real, genuine, respectful, caring, knew-my-name, approachable, authentic, funny, and, unconditional, you are as the building leader. You are way more than the urgent adult running through the hallways with a radio. You are a human being who cares deeply for all the other human beings (big and small) in the school. But most importantly, you empower, distribute, and share the privilege of leadership. You are creating a culture. AWSP has a longstanding tradition of supporting principals, and the principalship, in the education of all students (our mission statement). We have an even deeper history of training all students to become leaders through our programs offered at the Cispus Learning Center and throughout the state via the Association of Washington Student Leaders (AWSL). AWSP and AWSL together provide the perfect recipe for creating school culture; principals leading with students. As a member of AWSP, you have direct access to incredible programs and resources to help you authentically engage your students in walking with you in the creation and maintenance of school culture. The entire team at AWSP, AWSL, and Cispus are ready and waiting for your call. Don’t be the next victim of principal turnover because you took your eye off of school culture. There is nothing more important to both your success and your legacy. Some day as I travel through your town, I will undoubtedly run into one of your students in the grocery store, gas station, coffee shop, or local restaurant. What will they tell me about you? How will they describe the impact of your leadership and the culture you worked together to create?
Dr. Scott Seaman joined AWSP in the fall of 2013 after serving as the principal at Tumwater High School. In July 2018, he assumed duties as Executive Director.
Find us on
Association of Washington School Principals
Washington Principal | Volume 2 – 2020-21