Adult School Culture
"When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment... not the flower."
I’d like to tell you a story.
It’s an important one for all of us who care about public education.
I used to teach elementary school. At the end of my first year of teaching, I wasn’t happy with the school where I worked. So, I decided to explore beginning my second year of teaching somewhere else. When August came, I found myself teaching first grade at a school that placed below the first percentile for performance statewide — ranking 817 out of 818 elementary schools in the state.
At the same time that I was transitioning, so was the school. That same August, the school began undergoing a mandated turnaround and a new principal started. The first year of this turnaround was hard for all of us, but we trekked through day in and day out. The school was up against a lot of challenges — patterns of neighborhood violence, large classes of students who had no shortage of special education and social-emotional needs, discipline referrals that would make your head spin, a community relationship rooted in skepticism on both sides and a staff composed primarily of first- and second-year teachers. These are the kinds of systemic inequities that you may have learned about in education coursework, seen on the news, and chances are, if you’re reading this, tried to solve in your professional work life. It is a different kind of experience to live and breathe these inequities every day.
Then, during year two, the principal made some changes. He hired new people — a lot of them. Despite some groaning from staff about “edu-speak” terms, like “rigor,” “scope,” “cold call” and what seemed like 182 different acronyms, he insisted that our staff use a common language. He developed rapport by being a supportive and consistent presence within our classrooms — and outside of our classrooms over beers. He created opportunities to elicit staff feedback instead of assuming feedback would come to him.
I began to realize that it wasn’t just the systemic inequities that challenged our school and our staff during that first year — it was also the adult school culture. Before this realization, I thought about the success of any school mostly in terms of data, metrics and achievement — not “soft” concepts like school culture and certainly not adult school culture, which didn’t seem to pertain to students. My schemas and (mis)conceptions were being reoriented, restructured and realigned.
In a cultural shift that seemed sudden, but was actually extremely intentional and painstakingly planned, our school began to feel and act as though we were on a common path and mission together. The systemic challenges I told you about didn’t go away; they were still there. But, having a more positive school culture made these challenges motivating, instead of barricading. We still made jokes about how we wished our pre-service training had covered choosing the best room to cry in after dismissal, managing a schedule that contained thousands of meetings, living off ramen noodles and dealing with fecal “art” in the student bathrooms (that really happened).
But, here’s the thing — despite all of that, we supported each other. By choice, we’d even spend our precious 12 minutes of lunch casually observing each other’s teaching. We were helping each other become teacher rock stars! Because of our new, positive adult school culture, going to work became something we looked forward to. The huge task of teaching tiny humans to read in an environment filled with systemic and situational barriers was becoming fun and rewarding for us — and more importantly, for our students.
This is why adult school culture matters.
School culture is classroom culture. Classroom culture influences student learning. Here are my former second-grade students feeling warm and fuzzy about learning!
This is also why adult school culture matters.
Given these examples, the educator effectiveness team’s recent multi-state convening, “Transforming Adult School Culture,” felt exciting and important. Our team realized that educator-policy initiatives can have positive and negative effects on school culture in states and school districts. Likewise, existing school culture can also act as a powerful force toward determining an initiative’s levels of success and impact.
Our team also realized how important it is to have different kinds of stakeholders present, including teachers, principals, superintendents, state teacher organization representatives and state department of education staff. We can’t begin to tackle adult school culture without understanding each other’s perspectives. At the convening, state teams used a planning template to create a plan that would generate a quick win for school culture within their state. An interesting theme from the convening was while many of us have a desire to systemically elevate the teaching profession, doing so inherently entails elevating personal and professional culture within schools.