September 19, 2016 in School Culture

Guest Blogger, Laura Estes-Swilley, reflects on school culture from a teacher's perspective:  

A school’s culture is the intangible form of its community. It is the wafting aura that many schools are struggling to clean in today’s complex education system. Culture is not about test scores, school grades, data – and that is why it seems so hard to define and address. In truth, a strong community can weather a little bit of bad data, a dip in scores, or any other challenge that presents itself. But strong communities with positive and nurturing cultures don’t just happen; they must be built.

Research tells us that the principal is the keystone to culture and community. Everything in a school trickles down from the top. It is often a waterfall where the heaviest rush of responsibility drowns the ones at the bottom who are just treading water. Nothing in nature or science is going to reverse that fall and no amount of ignoring a school’s culture is going to make it flourish. Students need to be led by a group of talented teachers who care about them and each other; teachers need to be led by a cadre of administrators who truly put students first, the school community second and everything else a distant third. Creating change takes focused and fully conscious effort, one that is acknowledged and discussed. Teachers spend most of the little bit of face-time they have with school leaders talking about data and are under constant pressure to engage their students in “data chats” as well. If the data driven school inspired positive and sparkling school culture,there wouldn’t be a teacher shortage, high rate of teacher burnout, attendance problems, increasing drop -out rates. There has to be a better way.

There is. First, we must acknowledge the problem and seek help. Why aren’t school leaders looking at how corporations that run their businesses in cubicles create community? How do fraternities and sororities create such strength of community that they inspire lifelong connection and support? What about the unbreakable sense of community in armed forces units,police units, firehouses? How does that emergency room nursing staff keep up their compassion in the face of tragedy every day? The details vary, but the summary is this: shared experience creates community, which is the tangible form of culture. Community can be solidarity – we all stand together in good times and bad. School grade dropped? That is on us. We own this together, not the Math Department or the Fourth Grade team. Our AP has been promoted to Principal of a neighboring school? This is a win. Our school-family helped this leader grow to his potential. Celebrations all around! This level of ownership is born of the bond of shared experience. Community means we have a history together that is inclusive and nurturing to our spirits.

Sometimes shared experience is a faculty sitting through a required training, bored, texting each other about how useless it is.It is bonding over having to wear these ridiculous shirts on Wednesdays and tagging each other in pictures of their ever-climbing classroom thermostats on Facebook. Imagine the culture born of this community. More importantly, imagine being a student in this school community soaking in the quiet resentment everyday. Creating the school culture you desire requires mindfulness and planning,building relationships, taking risks, sometimes maybe even a little silliness.There is another type of school…one where students walk the halls and see the same poorly painted picture hanging in each classroom because the teachers did a little team building art after school one day. It’s the school where the teachers decided to celebrate Hawaiian Shirt Thursday and the students thought it was just silly enough to join. It’s where the principal knows the kids and asks about that math test yesterday (was it as hard as you thought it would be?) and the teachers care about what is happening in each other’s classrooms (I know Chad can be a handful, how is that going?). Sometimes it is the school where the teachers have spirit days and karaoke on non-student days or where everyone’s baby pictures are posted for fun. 

Everything is just a little brighter in a school with tightening community and it is just a little easier to come in early and stay late where the air is energized. It makes a good place to work and learn – for students and staff.

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