Insights into School Culture
Some time ago I had the great experience of having a conversation with middle schoolers about how different cultures celebrate Christmas. You see, this group of 40 children represented about 15 different countries of the world. They were first generation living within the United States and spoke their language of origin at home.
In the midst of my discussion, I asked, “Does your nationality or country have a unique way to celebrate Christmas?” One student proudly stated, “Our Irish custom of celebration of Christmas ends with my mom throwing the Christmas tree out the window to the curb for recycling.” I answered, “An Irish custom? Hmm, I’m Irish and I never heard that before.” When I inquired about this to his mother, she laughed out loud and said, “Irish tradition? No, we live on the fourth floor and I just don’t want to clean up all the pine needles!”
This student was in the only Irish family living in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. They were also the only family who had a real tree on the block and the only ones who threw it out the window. This student had a perception that this action was culturally based because they were the only ones who did that!
This story always gets me to reflect on the meaning of culture and its importance. Every group of human beings, in a sense, can have their own distinct culture. Teachers can experience this at the beginning of the school year because their class comes with a culture imbibed by the way learning and individual interaction takes place and can affect this culture. In addition, each school has a distinct environment that can be easily experienced to any visitor.
What happens when nobody’s watching
I could not help thinking of this when Building a Culture of Support; Strategies for School Leaders (Caposey, PJ, Eye on Education, 2013) recently crossed by desk. In this book, Caposey addresses advice to individuals who are new school leaders or teachers who are aspiring to become school leaders. In the introduction he defines school culture as “what defines your school when nobody is watching … how your school operates on a daily basis – from the principal’s office to the classroom to the lunchroom to the maintenance den.” (pg. xii) I believe school culture and the building of the proper environment can not only encourage teachers to flourish professionally and individually but also, and most importantly, assist the students to become the best person they can be by striving for their personal excellence.
How does a new school leader create and foster a culture in which support is an essential part of the environment? Caposey begins the answer to this question by focusing on four essential rules that can not only create such a culture but maintains it as well. These rules include the support of the mission, vision and goals of the school, teacher support and community support.
Understanding the “why” of what we do
Many teachers have gone through visioning exercises and mission statement updates if they have had the experience of journeying through a regional accreditation evaluation. Personally, I never realized how important these exercises are in defining what an individual school is all about. Few schools, in my experience, have taken the next step which Caposey suggests: the commitment to make daily decisions and improvement activities that support and embody the mission and vision statements. This is crucial in understanding the “why” teachers, principals and staff do what they do. In short, they put a form on the framework that the mission statement creates.
Support of the teachers by the school leader is also essential to creating a positive culture. Caposey reflects on this aspect by stating: “… Two things great principals do are maximizing the capacity of others and aligning the goals of the individual with those of the school. “ (pg. 42) One way of doing this is by taking the lead in professional development.
Caposey explains in great detail how a school leader surveys and then creates a professional development plan which sustains not only teacher learning but also leadership training of all personnel within the school community. In addition, he explains the importance and the “how to” of informal and formal observation as well as how to address feedback constructively. The forms, checklists and bullet lists that he supplies can be a great asset to any school leader.
Supporting kids and communities
There can never be enough discussion regarding student support. Caposey defines this type of support through the development of curriculum that is learner centered. I deeply appreciate his focus on the child when he states: “Educators must realize that kids are humans first and students second. The adults in a school must consider healing the souls of students as much a priority as addressing a vocabulary deficiency that will be exposed on the next state test.” (pg.87)
A learner centered curriculum that is supportive in nature has two aspects of it. One aspect focuses on instructional strategies, tools and methodologies and the other is the reaction of the students while it’s being delivered to them. (pg 89) This reaction is the tangible bounce-back of instruction that is truly leaner centered. Through checklists and charts, Caposey explores the “how” in developing this perspective.
Community support lies in what Caposey describes in the “5 S”s”: sports, student achievement, special, safety, and service. “Schools serve their communities by being successful. Schools are successful when leadership fosters a culture of support within the school by focusing on the mission and vision and serving the development of the people (professionals and students) in the building.” (pg. 116)
Any school leader who believes that culture is an important topic to pursue will find this book to be a crucial tool to accelerating positive school change. Personally, I have grown in my comprehension of how essential a “living” mission statement is to a school community – not one that is just on paper. I hope your appreciation of this grows as well upon reading this book.
Geralyn Schmidt, Sister of Christian Charity (SCC), is the Wide Area Network Coordinator at the Diocese of Harrisburg. An educator for 28 years, she is responsible for professional development programs for every age learner. Sister Geralyn writes for the group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution and writes a monthly article for the Diocese newspaper, The Catholic Witness.