Recently, I tweeted out an older post titled, “10 Easy Ways to Create an Awesome #ClassroomCulture This Year”, where I share some simple ideas on quick ways we can connect with students. Here is a list from the original post.
In response to the post, educator Lauren Seal suggested I create a post on doing the same thing for “School Culture,” so I thought I would share some simple ideas that can help improve the culture of your school. Although culture is not an easy thing to build, there are little things that we can do to make the experience so much better for our students, parent community, and teachers. Here are some suggestions that I have done in my experience in schools, or have seen through my travels. Please feel free to make some recommendations in the comments as well.
- Be at the doors to welcome your community each morning. What some people see as an expenditure, I have learned that welcoming people in the morning was a significant investment of time that came back to me exponentially. Whether it is administrators welcoming students in the morning at the front doors or teachers starting each day by being outside of their classroom to greet students in the morning, it is a great way to not only start the day for both educator and student. It also gives you the opportunity to check the mood of students as they enter your building or room. I did this every year as an administrator and it was something that helped build relationships with staff, students, and the community. It is worth the few minutes as it starts everything off on such a positive note.
- Make sure your current community is represented in the halls and on the walls. As a basketball referee, I was able to travel to schools all over my community, and I noticed several schools that had foregone the “graduation pics” of the past and replaced them with current students that were currently in the building on a rotating basis. I would watch students excited to see that they were represented and it gave them more ownership of the school. In my practice, as principal, I replaced the old school “principal portraits” with action shots of current students. I never noticed one student ever care who the principal was in 1972, but I did see them get excited to see themselves or their friends on the wall. To do it on a continuous basis seems like a lot of work though, hence the next suggestion.
- Give some ownership over the decoration of the school. Many teachers spend an ample amount of time decorating their classroom only to call it “our classroom” when the students arrive. Instead of coming in early, have students help with the decoration to give them ownership and to be honest, save you some time.
As well, one school that I used to see in my travels had a group of students within their media arts class in charge of several display spaces within the school. They had posted samples of student work, images, and media from different types of extracurricular activities, and had an excellent representation of students throughout the community. They also did it as part of their classroom experience and took fantastic pride in their work because they knew their choices would be seen by more than their teacher. More schools are talking about “empowering students” which means giving up ownership. It might not look as good as it once did, but it is less work for teachers in many cases and gives more pride in the school.
- Give as much ownership over assemblies to students as possible. Assemblies are often a big part of the school experience, but who is doing the planning and organization? Years ago, we moved toward students deciding themes and planning the activities, realizing that although it wasn’t as organized as it once was, there was more interest from the community as the students were involved in not only performing or leading on the day, but through the process. I have seen this happen in so many schools and it is incredible the pride students in the whole process and what it does to enhance the school culture.
- Replace as many “nos” and “don’ts” as possible. Look around your school. How many signs say “don’t” or “no”? I was recently in an elementary school, and there was a no-smoking sign. Were kids between 5-12 years of age having issues of lighting up in the middle of class? I doubt it.
In a culture of “yes,” preemptively telling students “don’t” is sometimes the equivalent of giving heck to the entire class for the actions of the few. The majority that does nothing feels guilty, while the few might not care.
Dr. Martin Brokenleg gave this excellent example of how a simple change in messaging can say the same thing but in a much more positive manner. He suggested moving from, “For the safety of our students, please check in upon arrival.” This can insinuate students are not safe and not give the best feeling throughout the day. His suggestion for the change was to move to, “Upon arrival, please come to say hi at the office as we love to welcome all visitors to our school.” A subtle shift that can make a big difference.
This is not about creating a space of anarchy or not having rules, but the tone and the delivery are important in creating the culture.
- Don’t do stuff because you always did stuff. Not all tradition is bad, but not all tradition is good. Doing things because you have done them in the past doesn’t mean it is suitable for the current culture. Always ask why are we doing this and how does it serve our current students? This will ensure that thought is put into everything you do and is not repeated solely for the reason that it has always been done.
- Find time to connect with students outside of the classroom and outside of your class. Early in my career, I remember complaining about supervision. The way I saw it was that it was me “policing” kids and dealing with things they had done during recess. It was a kind of pain. One of my principals noticed that I hated it and he reminded me that this was an amazing opportunity to connect with students that I hadn’t taught that current year. For whatever reason, that resonated with me, and I spent more time connecting and learning with students, playing sports, playing guitar, and making connections. I noticed that not only was I enjoying myself more, but the “issues” at recess also went down significantly. We all need our downtime, and you don’t have to spend every extra minute with students, but when you do, take advantage.
Connecting in the staffroom and being positive is also a great way to get to your know your colleagues on a different level as well. Just ensure that the staffroom doesn’t turn into a space to talk negatively about students, community, or colleagues. The staffroom should be a fountain, not a drain.
- Make community feels valued as people first, learners second. I have spent a lot of time in schools, and I have noticed walls dedicated to academics, athletics, and fine arts, and “top achievers” in things that are offered at a school. Many students might not fit into any of these categories, and the experience of school can be daunting. Just remember that some of your brilliant and most talented students in your school are terrible at academics. Finding and unleashing their talent and genius should be part of every day for our students. Help students identify themselves as so much more than grades and awards. This leads to the next suggestion.
A simple thing to do is when you pass students or staff in the hallways is to always acknowledge them with a simple “hi” or “hello.” It takes a moment but could be the best part of a student’s day.
- Start an Identity Day. One of the best experiences I had as an educator was when my Vice-Principal started an “Identity Day” for our school. Short version; each community member (staff included) would have an opportunity to showcase something in which they were passionate. It was not only a great day for our community, but it helped our school to identify the passions and talents of our people. If you want more information on this day, here are some links that will help.
- Remember your staff needs love as well. Most of my list is about our students, but remember that your staff needs to feel valued as well. Not only to be valued but to also feel valued. There is a difference. My good friend, Jimmy Casas, would call the parents of his staff over the holidays to how much he appreciated them. This was a reminder to me that we are all somebody’s kid, and that a staff member that feels valued is more likely to do the same for students. Also, don’t forget that your administrators need to feel praised and appreciated as well. If you see your boss doing something great, don’t lose an opportunity to let them know.
Educators do so much for students that we forget to take care of ourselves and each other. Your colleagues often need the same love and respect that your students do.
Although this won’t fix a lousy culture, these little ideas can make a huge difference. If you have any “quick wins” that you do in your school, please do not hesitate to share them in the comments below.
The culture of your school is made up of people, and if people know they are valued and appreciated, the culture will reflect that.