The emotional ecology of school improvement culture: Charged meanings and common moral purpose

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5 Scopus citations


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to understand how high-performing schools develop and sustain improvement culture. While school culture has consistently been identified as an essential feature of high-performing schools, many of the ways in which culture shapes specific improvement efforts remain unclear. The paper draws on new research from social cognitive neuroscience and the anthropology and sociology of emotion to account for the relative impact of various meanings within school culture and how school commitment is enacted. Design/methodology/approach: The analysis here draws on three years of ethnographic data collected in Harrison High School (HHS) in an urban public school district in River City, a large metropolitan area in the Midwestern USA. Though the school’s surrounding community had been socioeconomically depressed for many years, Harrison was selected for the study largely because of its steady improvement trajectory: in December, 2013, it was deemed a “Celebration” school under the state’s Multiple Measurement Rating system. The paper focuses on a period of time between 2013 and 2015, when the school was struggling to implement and localize a district-mandated push-in inclusion policy. Findings: Study data suggest that the school’s eventual success in localizing the new inclusion policy was due in large part to a set of core interlocking feedback loops that generated specific emotionally charged meanings which guided its priorities, practices and direction. Specifically, the feedback loops explain how staff members and leaders generated and sustained empathy for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, optimism in their capabilities and motivation to help them learn and flourish. Furthermore they show how school leaders and staff members generated and sustained confidence and trust in their colleagues’ abilities to collaboratively learn and solve problems. Originality/value: The model of the school’s emotional ecology presented here connects two domains of educational practice that are frequently analyzed separately: teaching and learning, and organization and leadership. The paper shows how several key features of high-performing schools are actually made and re-made through the everyday practices of leaders and staff members, including relational trust, academic optimism and collective efficacy. In sum, the charged meanings described here contributed to leaders’ and staff members’ commitment to the school, its students and each other – and what Florek (2016) has referred to as their “common moral purpose.”.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)488-503
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Educational Administration
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 6 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited.

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Beliefs
  • Change
  • Commitment
  • Leadership
  • Organizational culture
  • Secondary schools

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