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School Culture . . . The Other Teacher

by Clair Ward, Head of School at Valley School of Ligonier

Parents today are encouraged to be consumers of schools. This means identifying specific indicators of “good” if not “excellent” schools.  Parents are most often inclined to look at class size, the education/training levels of the teachers, and the facilities. College placement can also be an indicator of quality education in the eyes of a parent consumer. However, one of the most elusive yet crucial measures of a successful learning environment should be its culture.

Families go to great lengths to create family culture that reflects the values they wish to impart to their children. To do this, we develop norms and habits of being that reflect what we believe to be the important components of life. This is done through shared meals, traditions of faith, rituals and routines with extended family, etc. Some of this culture is intentional, some of it is not. But at the end of the day, children grow up with a sense of the cultural norms of their households.

Well this is true for schools as well. The culture in a school sets the tone for how students view their responsibility to learn, how and what they play at recess, and the relation-ships that students have with adults. There are three primary areas of culture that tend to impact education in a building: academic culture, social culture and the culture of relationships.

Academic Culture

Schools should inspire students to find their passion for learning.  This is done most successfully through adult modeling.  Students must see teachers as being in intellectual motion. Ima-gine how powerful it is for a literature student to know his teacher is writing a book. Imagine the power of an art student seeing her teacher struggle to master a new technique. Or imagine the message a teacher sends when she is so particularly thrilled the week that she gets to teach the cycle of water. In essence, students must witness passion for a subject area in order to find their own passion. The mistake that schools, and by ex-tension teachers, often make is to assume that their job is only to impart knowledge, not necessarily passion. The reality is that students will not develop academic behavior and pas-sion if it is not modeled for them and reinforced by the adult culture of teaching and learning.

Social Culture of Learning

I think we can all agree that children will not learn if they are not emotion-ally safe and whole. A healthy school community features students interacting with each other across grade levels and interests. It is important that this naturally be an environment of inclusion over exclusion. Ideally, the notion of “cool to be smart” should prevail as well. If students are committed to creating study groups, to getting work completed before playing with friends online, the social culture will positively impact learning as well.

Culture of Relationships

This is a big one. Discipline can (and should) provide a correction without shaming a child. This is more than just a gift to a child. What this does is foster the child’s deep respect for his teachers. Teachers can playfully poke and prod students. But they must also be encouraging, agreeing to meet with and support the students. Students learn to access and utilize the resources available to them at school. Teachers encourage students to gradually practice more and more independence. Children therefore develop a unique ability to relate to adults. And that trait eventually translates into a life-long ability to advocate for themselves.

Last year, Howard Gardner, an esteemed author and professor of cognition and education from Harvard University wrote an article about his institution. The piece had the provocative title of “Why Kids Cheat at Harvard.” Gardner wrote about the university’s largest cheating scandal. Aside from the obvious concern that Gardner has for the episode itself, what concerns the author most is the fact that he is noticing that students exhibit an increasing numbness to the concept of cheating. The decision to cheat is no longer a process of exploring ethical standards and convictions; rather, the students believe that life has shown them that if there is a “means to an end” then it is justifiable. Gardner writes, “…this scandal can have a positive outcome if leaders begin a searching examination of the messages being conveyed to young people and then do whatever it takes to make those messages ones that lead to lives genuinely worthy of admiration.” I believe that this is the role of culture.

Gardner’s is a poignant example of how a deficient school culture can work against the common good. So as hard as we work to prove the quality of a school through its test scores, let us also be vigilant that the other teacher—school culture—is working to promote the values about learning that we desire. Excellent curriculum, sound instruction and positive culture . . . these are the hallmarks of a good school.

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