Creating and maintaining school cultures in times of change

by Chris Callaghan


This research for a principal’s sabbatical was carried out in 2013. It describes interviews with several Christchurch principals as they created and maintained school cultures in a time of change, during the Canterbury earthquakes. Chris Callaghan broadens out the research so that her implications apply to any school going through major change.

She looks particularly at the kinds of change that can affect a school in New Zealand – from ERO visits and reports, to school mergers, to dealing with staff, whānau and community, and students, and to self-managing schools facing increasing calls for accountability.

In her research Callaghan asked the principals from a range of schools:

  • what do you understand by the term ‘school culture’?
  • how do you see your roles as professional leaders in a time of change?
  • what impact do you have as a professional leader on the school’s culture?

She argues that school cultures are usually characterised by deeply rooted traditions, values and beliefs based on shared experiences. She was able to summarise the principals’ responses into broad categories – atmosphere, philosophy, values, routines and behaviours.

Callaghan quotes Dr Wayne Edwards from Massey University who says that the roles of educational leaders falls into four elements:

  • managing the business
  • working with people
  • guiding the curriculum
  • leading towards the future.

She found that 70 percent of the principals said that managing the business took most of their time. But they agreed that this did not lead to a healthy school culture.

The role of the school leadership, Callaghan argues, is vital to establishing the school culture particularly as they look to the future challenges, where everybody’s opinion needs to be listened to and taken account of as a school moves forward, or changes, or meets new challenges such as mergers, or equity issues.

She concludes her report by saying: "where one community feels disaffected, they are less likely to work together and a principal will struggle to create the high trust environment so necessary for success".

Reflective questions

 These reflective questions may guide you in your reading of this report:

  • How would you and your school leaders describe the present culture of your school? Use the five descriptors which Chris uses, as a start – atmosphere, shared philosophy, shared values, routines, and standards of behaviour. What elements do you need to work on to effect change?
  • What dominates or takes most of the leadership time at your school at the moment? Consider your leadership activities as they occur in an average day. What activities need to change so that you can spend more time addressing changes to your school culture?
  • What leadership changes and challenges are you faced with at your school? Can you and your team address these changes/challenges through making shifts in your school culture?


Callaghan, C. (2013). The Role of Professional Leaders in Creating and Maintaining School Cultures in Times of Change. Principal sabbatical report.Christchurch.

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