Student roles in cultivating school culture


Michael Niehoff, an educator who has taught student leadership for the past 20 years, shares his experience in having students take active roles in shaping their school’s culture in a piece for Getting Smart called Letting Students Lead School Culture. Niehoff notes that challenges related to school culture are often adult-led policies and initiatives that do not engage students in the process. His experiences involve teaching student leaders to create opportunities for all members of the student body to participate in and define the culture of their school. The result is often a new and deeper level of learning while cultivating a culture of equity, opportunity, learning, and connectedness. Read more about his work at the Buchanan High School in Central California below. 

Throughout my collective experiences as a teacher, advisor and site leader, I have consistently witnessed students producing amazing, powerful, relevant and impactful work when given the opportunity and support. One of those experiences that truly transformed me, my students and our school was when I was a Student Activities Director/Leadership Advisor for six years at Buchanan High School in Central California. My students produced amazing projects that impacted the culture of the school, as well as the overall student experience for many.

…I made it my mission to recruit as many diverse student leaders as I could, as well as challenge, said leaders to reach and connect, personally somehow, with every student at the school. As an educator, it always bothered me that we had students that dislike school, didn’t feel that there was something there for them and were not connected in any way to people or pursuits at the school.

…Less than a year later, Columbine happened. And we were reminded, more than ever, that we should be striving to help people feel connected to their peers, school and community. Since then, we’ve been reminded repeatedly. But typically, educators attempt to address these challenges – which are cultural challenges of a school – by launching adult-led programs, initiatives and policies. Rarely do we look to our students to help address these issues.

I challenged my students by sharing with them the mission and vision. We adopted the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” as our anthem in discussing with one another how to connect to the disconnected.

Students can gain valuable career and life skills as leaders, all while having a significant impact on their peers, their school and their community. Here are six categories that provide outlines and specific examples for how student leaders can create and implement avenues for all students to experience a positive school environment and a new, deeper level of learning:

1. Service-Based Learning

We’ve known for a long time the benefits of students getting involved in service-based learning opportunities. They have often participated in order to meet college admission goals, school graduation requirements, student club expectations and more. Educators have embraced it knowing that it transforms the learner. It’s a great thing to get students to volunteer and perform service activities–but it’s even better when students get one another to do it as well… Read the full article here.

2. Social-Emotional Learning

Adults have long worked to lead positive school culture through various character education programs. But again, they are more successful when students create and lead the implementation. After a series of issues on campus related to racial intolerance and insensitivity, leadership students decided to address the issue and challenge with “Harmony.” These brave and courageous students created a Diversity Talent Show that not only featured and promoted every culturally and ethnically diverse group on campus, but also worked to include those whom they thought were the most marginalized or ignored on campus – Special Education Students. This show, which also began in late 1999, also still continues today. Students and teachers have repeatedly agreed that this unique show goes a long way in educating and challenging all students, staff and community members to promote not only tolerance, but acceptance (see

I’ll say it again–we want students to have empathy skills? Well, we have to provide real-world opportunities for all students to grow those skill sets.

3. Noontime Activities

These were an unexpected gold mine of school culture building that initially were underestimated by both students and yours truly. They began as a means of me establishing a baseline leadership assignment that required a team of students to organize, collaborate and produce an event on a more immediate and rudimentary scale. After all, the audiences were captive to some degree in that students had to remain on campus during lunch (except for seniors), and were often looking for things to do…

4. Student Recognition

This began with students recognizing other students on campus for co-curricular and academic success (athletics, performing arts, academic awards, service awards and more). But like all good things launched by students, it also grew… Read the full article here.

5. Professional Events

My students took ideas from the professional community, and then replicated them for the high school student audience. One great example was our Young Women’s Conference. We took the model right from our local/regional event where professional women gather to hear experts on a wide range or career, health and other issues. Juniors and Seniors opted in for the day, where they attended workshops of choice, heard keynote speakers, and had a formal business luncheon. It was empowering for those that attended, as well as for those that organized the event. Other examples included Student Art Shows, Guest Speakers, Car Shows, Human Relations Days, Black History Month Blues Concerts and more – all organized and led by students for students (with a “something for everyone” approach, as well).

6. School Improvement Projects

Long before there were #20Time or Genius Hours, I challenged my student to identify an issue or problem and campus, and then design a solution to address it. There was no shortage of problems they identified, or creative solutions they worked to deploy. They included, but were not limited to, parking, food, isolation, school communication, club opportunities, memorializing students and staff members, student access, career exploration, specialized activities and events, campus cleanliness, staff recognition, student recognition and many more. Students had to publicly identify their chose issue or problem as well as announce their plans to address it. If it required funding, they had to seek financial support both on and off campus. If it required school or district administrative approval, they had to facilitate that. If it required altering or updating school policy, they had to navigate that process. It was the ultimate demonstration of learning as it was personalized, featured voice choice, was public, addressed a real world challenge, was collaborative on all fronts, and was designed to improve the world around us…

Read the full article here.