3 Ways to Improve School Culture

By AJ Bianco and Dave Frangiosa

There's no denying that the landscape of public education has shifted dramatically in the last few years. While many of the challenges we're facing were present before the start of the pandemic, they have been magnified by these events. Students have had to manage unprecedented circumstances in addition to the focus on building skills and acquiring knowledge.

For teachers, educational technology has exploded, and along with that, so has the number of products available to teachers. We have seen mandates from boards of education and state legislatures that directly impact how teachers interact with students, as well as ongoing educational research we must consider when discussing student learning.

Factor in that there is very little time to digest and plan for all of this, and it's no wonder educators are feeling burnt out, causing many to leave the profession altogether. There is no doubt that change is necessary. However, systemic shifts take time and may not always be possible, so here are some ways we can change the conversation tomorrow.

Shifting to a Strengths Perspective

How we talk about students shapes how we think about them, which shapes how we engage them. Shifting mindsets is essential to any valuable and sustainable change, which can happen without changing any other aspect of the school.

A good place to start would be to see each individual's inherent value to our learning environment, rather than making decisions about what students can and cannot do.

Allowing people to use their unique talents, regardless of their role, shifts us from a deficit mindset of finding all areas needing improvement to a mindset of added value. Here is what you bring to the table and how we can expand that to be more efficient and effective.

Below are the 4 principles I use to frame the strengths perspective.

  • Every student has something they are good at. Regardless of the level of academic success, based on interests, experiences, or other factors, every student has inherent strengths. Use these talents as the starting point for student interactions.
  • Students are the directors of their learning efforts. Students communicate what challenges they encounter. We act as coaches in the classroom, guiding them in acquiring the skills they identify as areas of opportunity.
  • All students can learn. Students should be given opportunities to try, succeed, and experience learning that comes from falling short of a goal.
  • The learning relationship is a collaboration. Students and teachers share power in the classroom.

This can be modified to apply to staff as well. Leadership is a quality, not a position. (Learn more about the strengths perspective at the Reimaged Schools website.)

Make Sure All Voices Are Heard

Take a step back for a second and think about how you would respond if someone told you to do something "because I said so." I know we're more tactful in our communication, but there are many aspects of education where that is essentially the message. "Why do I have to sit in this PD?" Or when students ask, "Why do I need to learn this?"

It's not necessary to always agree, but we need to respond better than a version of "because I said so." For that to happen, we must listen to questions and concerns openly. What is even more effective is to actively seek out these interactions.

Prompt students and staff to identify areas of opportunity and provide suggested improvements if they have them. Make changes where appropriate.

If those adjustments can't be made at that time, communicate specifically why. Regardless of the outcome of this interaction, make sure everyone involved feels heard and valued. While they may be disappointed with the outcome, they will not be discouraged by the interaction, which will empower them to continue communicating positively and constructively.

Provide Choice

"Everyone's needs are different."

This simple statement should be something that all educators and leaders focus on whether they are planning for a faculty meeting or professional learning, handling student behavior and discipline, creating daily lessons and activities, or when they plan projects and assessments.

There is no reason why we should be forcing anyone in schools to fit into the same box.

Each of our students that walk through the doors has different interests, thoughts, ideas, and ways of learning. When it comes to staff, they have different passions and backgrounds that shape their teaching methodologies.

By offering choice, we can offer an opportunity to allow those in our schools to feel comfortable and confident, think outside the box, become more creative, and have the potential to unlock greatness.

Giving students choices in the classroom allows for greater effort, increased collaboration, stronger performance, and deeper learning. The task of incorporating choice may seem daunting. However, the next steps lead to outstanding growth once you have started.

Here are a few ideas to make choices part of your school culture tomorrow:

  1. Create surveys to help students share their thinking about the topic/s they are learning, what they like and/or dislike, and how they want to learn going forward. Give students a choice as to how they want to learn and how they want to be assessed. Take time to create mini-choice boards for students so that they can personalize their learning and find what interests them.
  2.  Avoid the canned faculty meeting and PD practices by making professional learning and staff development more personal. Allow the staff to find books, articles, or podcasts that will intrigue and inspire them based on where they are now. Let the staff choose how and what they want to learn to reignite their passions—and pass this on to their colleagues and students.

Systemic change takes time. However, there is no reason to wait to improve school culture. Shifting your mindset can happen tomorrow.

These approaches can be implemented alongside what we currently do in our buildings or classrooms to make everyone involved feel a sense of ownership and pride in their school community.

Tapping into the strengths of those around us shows them they are valued and respected, strengthening relationships. Once clear expectations for district goals are established, seeking input from all involved and allowing them to address these goals from different angles will provide viable approaches that may not have been considered.

  • Look to build momentum from there.
  • Acknowledge those contributing positively.
  • Seek out the detractors and honestly try to understand their opposition.

These conversations can lead to valuable insight that can be used to further improve our school communities.

Photo by Canva Studio from Pexels

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