Building a Strong Adult Professional Culture in Schools: Adult Culture and Effective Schools

This week’s post comes from Jon Saphier, President of Research for Better Teaching.  Like last week’s post from Allison Skerritt, this piece grows out of Jon’s chapter “Strong Adult Professional Culture: The Indispensable Ingredient for Sustainable School Improvement” from  from the book Future Directions of Educational Change.

“Four years of public school teaching…and ten years as a principal… convinces me that the nature of the relationships among adults who inhabit a school has more to do with a school’s quality and character, with the professionalism of its teachers than any other factor.”

Roland Barth, 1985

Building on Roland Barth’s comment 30 years ago, many have argued that. adult culture is the main shaper of the school’s capacity as an organization to learn and improve its results for students.

Literature on adult culture in schools considers many dimensions of “the way we do things around here,” including stories and story-tellers, heroes and villains of the past, traditions and celebrations that people look forward to (or dread,) and the degree to which there is celebration, community, and opportunities for human contact with one another.  But in my work, some elements have been more important than others. Appreciation and recognition for example, are certainly important in any organization’s “culture;” but are not as central as the regular behavioral norm of “examining student work together non-defensively and deciding how to re-teach what some students didn’t get the first time we taught it.

Educational studies of adult culture started rolling out more frequently in the 90s.  So for at least 25 years we had major authors advocating for the importance of Adult Professional Culture, as well as produced for educators by practitioners. The argument is straight-forward: Strong Adult Professional Culture (APC) leads to more teaching expertise in more classrooms for more children more of the time, because it creates the kind of deep collaboration and use of data that supports constant learning about teaching practice. From this perspective, high-expertise teaching leads to better learning for students.

More recent research studies are also looking at the on the connection between strong cultures and student achievement. These studies make the case that the range and sophistication of teaching expertise is far larger and more complex than the voting public and policy-makers realized. This complexity explains why deeply collaborative cultures are necessary for the kind of problem-solving in which true professionals engage.  They can work together to analyze and address learning issues rather than apply some “best practice.”

Our approach at Research for Better Teaching suggests that there will be no sustainable improvement in student results and no reduction of the achievement gap until leaders and teachers succeed in establishing a series of norms of behavior between adults:


  1. Frequent teaching in the presence of other adults (Public Teaching)
  2. Safety to take risks, be vulnerable in front of colleagues
  3. Constant learning about High-Expertise Teaching


  1. Deep collaboration and deliberate design for interdependent work and joint responsibility for student results
  2. Non-defensive self-examination of teaching practice in relation to student results
  3. Constant use of data to re-focus teaching


  1. Urgency and press to reach all students and do better for our disadvantaged students
  2. Commitment to implement “Smart is something you can get” in classroom practice, class structures, and school policies and procedures


  1. Human environment of caring, appreciation and recognition, getting to know one another, traditions we look forward to


  1. Demanding and high standards for development towards high expertise teaching for all teachers
  2. Honest, open communication and ability to have difficult conversations
  3. Environment of Reflection with Habits of Mindful Inquiry


Many other elements of school practice count, and count heavily (good curriculum; community support; resources; school structures like induction and teacher leadership and common planning time; and others.) But no matter how well these important areas are structured, they will not accomplish on their own what we need for students unless we develop these kinds of Strong Adult Professional Cultures. Only leaders can make this so. And it has to start from the top.

Jon Saphier

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