I’m a thinker. I’m one of those guys that sometimes cannot fall asleep at night because of the myriad thoughts that enter, leave, come back, shout, and do the occasional jig in my head. Although these thoughts do tend to run the gamut of topics, I’ve been fixated recently on one theme that I cannot seem to shake. In this case it’s a good thing, because this topic is near and dear to each and every teacher (whether or not you know it yet).
You see, my high school is going through a fair amount of change right now. We’re dealing with the normal transitions: Finals, grades, the beginning of the Spring semester. But, there is one additional change that nobody saw coming: Our principal has recently left us. As with any changing of the guard, this has elicited a wide range of reactions from our staff. I obviously won’t go into that here, but a positive outcome of all this is that it has really made me think about something that is pervasive in any school; something that is arguably the most important aspect of the quality of the workplace and the education all students receive. This recent shift has caused me to think deeply about my school’s culture.
Now, let’s take a quick step backward (a baby step) and define culture. Although there are many interpretations of what culture consists of, I think of culture as the shared mindset of a group of individuals. I find it limiting to reserve the word culture for large groups: The culture of the midwest, gay culture, the culture of the underground music scene, coffee culture. I strongly believe that the culture of an individual school is as distinct and vitally important as the cultures of any of the singular members. The culture of a school determines the direction of initiatives, the motivations of the staff and students, and (most importantly) the attitudes held by each individual day in and day out. I hold this last piece to be most important, because a negative, poisonous culture can adversely affect the attitudes of the staff and students of a school, resulting in practices that are anything but conducive to the educational process.
I do not claim to be an expert in cultures, nor in their importance in regards to the everyday workings of an organization. However, I have a strong background in educational theory through both my undergraduate and graduate studies. And I read. You can learn a lot from reading (in case you haven’t heard).
So, here it is. A self-proclaimed educational theorist/researcher’s take on the most important elements of an exemplary school culture. These elements can present themselves in two ways: They can trickle down (an administrative team that holds these elements in high regard will naturally pass them on to their staff), or they can take root at the teacher level (that’s where you come in). As a teacher, you have an immense power to impact the lives of those around you. Holding these five elements in high regard will yield results you can only dream of.
The 5 Essential Elements of an Exemplary School Culture
At the foundation of any educational institution is its drive to be a professional learning community. A school staff that holds itself in high enough regard to go about the day-to-day dealings in a professional, astute manner will naturally send a strong message that learning is not only promoted here, it is fostered, nurtured, and expected. In practice, professionalism is not always the most popular element to uphold. Ties and well-pressed shirts don’t just appear in your closet each day, after all. However, professionalism need not be limited to one’s wardrobe. Professionalism is best represented in how a teacher interacts with his or her colleagues, administration, and students. When it is clear that the school is a place of high expectations, students will respect that (although it often seems the opposite).
Now, don’t get me wrong: I personally believe that professionalism also stems from how you dress each day. Many of my colleagues do not hold the same opinion, but I make it a point to wear a tie each day, shine my shoes, and (except for a month or two after the holidays) wear pants that fit. I firmly believe that my students respect the effort I put forth in this. It certainly is not the only thing about me they respect, but they know that I am proud to be at their school, proud to be part of their community, and (most importantly) proud to teach them. I just think wearing sweats and sneakers each day would probably send the opposite message.
When the students leave your classroom (hopefully with their homework written down) your job as a teacher shifts dramatically. No longer are you in charge. No longer are you expected to know everything that is happening in your classroom. No longer are you set apart from every other individual in the room by degrees and accolades. Instead, you are now part of a community of educators. Your hall mates, your team, your department; whatever you may call them, you are part of a greater group of teachers that must work together to achieve common goals.
Not only is collegiality a truth in education, it is one of its greatest gifts. When teachers work together, we can become so much more than any individual can hope to be. I firmly believe that strong, functional teams of educators have the greatest potential to advance our educational system further than we can ever dream it to be. A teacher on his or her own has a ceiling; a certain level at which no more growth can be expected or achieved. Working with his or her peers, though, can bring personal and professional growth beyond measure.
In my school, collaboration is forced. We must meet for an hour a week and document what we discuss. As any educator worth even a grain of salt knows, an hour mandate for collaboration is laughable. I am proud (and lucky) to be part of an Earth Science team that not only meets for our mandated hour, but works together incessantly to advance our curriculum and our practice. We have informal discussions many times a day with a sole purpose driving each and every discussion: How can we improve? As incendiary as this may sound, I believe the moment something is mandated (you MUST meet for an hour, take minutes, and report them to various entities) you lose all credibility. In the eyes of your staff, you are no longer expecting a high quality, collegial team. You are sending the message that you do not trust that honest, worthwhile collaboration is happening. Now, I am obviously aware that there are people that simply wouldn’t meet these standards if they weren’t mandated. But, in an exemplary school culture, collegiality is not only promoted, it is a foundational ideal that each and every member cherishes.
This element is a bit tricky to explain, and I suspect it will be the least easy to get on board with. Hear me out about this one: I really believe that a certain level of intellectualism is not only expected in a school community, it is imperative to achieving the high standards you wish to exemplify.
A quick note before I move on: I do NOT mean intellectualism in this context to mean that I think every member of a school’s staff should have advanced degrees and have an interest in academic research. Instead, I intend intellectualism to mean a logical, reasoned viewpoint of the educational system that looks beyond personal emotions. I intend intellectualism to mean that a teacher can set aside pettiness and feuds, and work together with their colleagues–both in the school and out–to set high goals and achieve them.
Of course, you cannot expect to have a highly intellectual staff without paying a certain amount of homage to the academic literature. Scholars and researchers have studied education for thousands of years. To throw out their works and theories would not only be a waste, it would be an absolute travesty. Not to sound too dramatic here, but to ignore the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Dewey, and Freire would be like an artist that wishes to improve her paintings ignoring the Great Masters, as well as every major art movement since. You simply cannot hope to advance your understanding of education–and thus, your instructional practice–without drawing from the nearly limitless pool of knowledge that is available to us. A school community that understands this simple fact, and doesn’t shy away from professional development that is based on research and the practice of others, has a great potential to improve.
All great organizations maintain some level of transparency between the dealings of the upper administration and the workforce. Naturally, not all decisions and deliberations need to be broadcast (when you’re serving pizza for lunch, just go for it; I certainly don’t need a play-by-play), but a strong two-way communication system is imperative to any organization that hopes to succeed.
In an exemplary school, transparency can be achieved by the administration with one simple habit: Circulating around the school many times a day and being visible inside and outside all teachers’ classrooms. This is, of course, a tall order for some schools. When one administrator is theoretically in charge of 500 or more students, it becomes a bit difficult to think they can be sweeping into and out of classrooms on a regular basis. However–and I can only speak here as a teacher–I have never felt so supported and valued as an employee as when my administration has taken an interest in my class and in my practice enough to visit my classroom for no other reason than to simply observe and interact. When an administrator enters my classroom they shatter their office door (metaphorically, let’s hope) and let me know that they are there to support me and my students. As a great administrator told me recently, she didn’t want to become an administrator to get out of the classroom. She wanted to become an administrator to have the opportunity to be in other teachers’ classrooms. This thought struck me for one simple fact: An administration with the mentality of support as its highest task is a great one indeed.
In practice, a visible administration will naturally promote greater transparency in the reverse direction as well. Teachers will not be content to let entire class periods pass with no meaningful learning taking place. After all, an administrator can walk in at any time! This transparency in both directions fosters a culture of mutual trust that is absolutely invaluable to any exemplary school.
I saved this one for last for one simple reason: It’s quite possibly my favorite. I hate to envision a school with only the first four of my essential elements. Sure, on paper it sounds great: You walk through the doors of a school that is clean and orderly, showing a great level of professionalism in all parties involved. Teachers are working together to achieve lofty and commendable goals while reading and improving upon academic research, all while setting aside differences that often impair the functioning of other staffs you’ve observed. The administration is circulating the building, keeping an eye on the day-to-day dealings of teachers and students. This scenario sounds wonderful, but for some reason I don’t picture any of the individuals in our hypothetical school smiling (actually, I don’t picture anybody with any faces at all, but I have a feeling that’s a dark part of my psyche I shouldn’t delve into here). Without a light, positive attitude, all of the hard work all parties put forth to build and maintain the first four elements is for naught. For naught, I say!
Everyone deserves to work in an environment of positivity. You cannot expect teachers and students to put forth the effort you desire day in and day out if you have not promoted a culture of happiness. Happiness makes you live longer. In my mind, this is because you have something to live for. Dramatic? Yeah, probably. But, I dare you to find someone that will disagree.
If you do, you might want to stay away from them. They probably don’t have a face, and that’s just terrifying.