The R.E.A.L. Playbook for School Culture

by | May 10, 2023 | 0 comments

7 min read

Culture is often a hot topic for school leaders, but it also typically goes undefined without a real playbook for leaders who want to cultivate it within their school 

Every school leader knows that culture is king. When the school culture is positive, every effort, initiative, and goal is that much easier. Of course, nothing makes school leadership easy, but the right culture can do wonders. The problem is that culture, albeit named as an important driver of school success, is mostly elusive. School leaders, especially new school leaders, often wonder: What does it mean to cultivate a positive school culture? What leadership actions do school leaders need as both agents of change that solve critical problems but also compassionate leaders who support the school community? Let’s first examine the balance between pressure and support. 

The Pressure and Support Model of an Effective School Culture

School leadership is synonymous with school improvement. We’ve never met a school leader who wasn’t on a mission to improve one or more aspects of their school to support students, teachers, and the community. To make a change, disrupting the status quo and putting pressure on people is inevitable. The number one thing that people don’t like is change, and the number two thing that people don’t like is the way things are. But disruption and pressure alone, without adding support and scaffolding change, is just bad leadership. If we want people to change so that student achievement improves, we need to support that change to occur. 


That said, “supporting” people without the pressure and expectation to change means that we’re supporting the status quo. It’s easy to think that we’re supporting people when we leave them alone, back off because of initiative fatigue, provide “autonomy” to implement as they see fit, or any other mechanism of support for their current reality.

Unfortunately, this effort has an adverse effect. Not that autonomy doesn’t have a place, or that initiative fatigue isn’t real, but teachers’ desire to be effective and make a difference means that we need to hold really high expectations for their work. Effective school leaders know that support with some pressure moves the needle of student achievement, which helps foster a great school culture. That’s why we built the R.E.A.L. Playbook for school culture. Leaders who use R.E.A.L. for both pressures and support end up with cultures that can sustain change while creating a supportive environment. 

The R.E.A.L. Playbook for School Leaders

  1. Relentless. The first aspect of the Playbook for an effective school culture is for school leaders to remain relentless. This means that they attack old, persistent problems from second to second as if in a battle with a fierce competitor. These kinds of leaders are rarely satisfied, and they take extreme ownership of everything. They are constantly looking at problems through a new lens, and they don’t rest until persistent problems are solved in a sustainable way. 

Highly effective school leaders never accept defeat because that would mean giving up on students and teachers. That said, it is common for leaders to fall into a trap where certain aspects of the school culture are left alone, usually because one or more aspects of the culture have been accepted for so long that they seem like they’ll never change. Relentless leaders build positive cultures because of their refusal to relent until the culture improves. 

  1. Experimental. The second aspect of the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to become more experimental. Experimental leaders are willing to fail faster by implementing and trying ideas and strategies more quickly. They’re always on the lookout for something that can make a difference for their school community. They embrace the notion that we can’t continue to do what we’re currently doing if we want new or different results. 

But, experimental leaders are not always innovating at scale and certainly not recklessly. That drives everyone nuts and has the opposite impact on culture than what we’re striving to achieve. Instead, experimental leaders find small pockets of the culture that are willing to implement something new to experiment with results. They rely on first followers and networks, and they wait to confirm better results before requiring everyone within the culture to change all at once. 

  1. Agile. The next strategy in the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to support a culture’s ability to remain agile. This might be foreign for many school leaders, but it means decreasing the number of people who provide input on any given program or initiative. This doesn’t mean that we won’t need everyone’s input; it just means that we can’t take everyone’s input on every new approach. 

When John Kotter published Accelerate, he introduced a business concept that speeds up the initiation of new ideas and pockets of implementation with his theory that we can create small webs of people who can move faster than the whole company can do as a large enterprise. The same is true for schools. Great school cultures are always agile in their ability to change quickly when the need arises. 

  1. Learning Culture. The final tactic in the R.E.A.L. Playbook is to shift from a teaching culture to a learning culture. In a teaching culture, the adults in the school are there to impart knowledge; in a learning culture, everyone positions themselves as a learner first, before any other position of authority or power. This starts with the school leader who takes on the role of what DuFour and Marzano named Leaders of Learning

This intention to use the school as a place to learn and grow by everyone who works or enters the school transforms the culture into a place that doesn’t propose to have all the answers and allows everyone to learn with what Richard Elmore described as a “beginner’s mind” in one of his last podcast appearances before he passed.


Other Mindshifts for School Leaders

Using the R.E.A.L. Playbook as a school leader is a mind shift. The strategies are a deviation from the general school leadership practices in lots of schools. In our recent book, 7 Mindshifts for School Leaders, we describe this change and many others so that school leaders can lead better and grow faster as agents of change through the use of both pressure and support. 

For school improvement to be a reality, we need new models for how we think about our culture and how we go about challenging the status quo. A commitment to the R.E.A.L. Playbook is one step to taking your school to the next level. 



As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

We can’t wait to hear from you.

Joe & T.J.


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