Having an edge: Vibrant school culture

I was a college counselor for several years, and one of the things that we talked about when we talked about counseling kids was the issue of “edges.” What edges did young people have that might lift them out of the pack that was applying to one college or another? It might be an intense commitment to a musical instrument or to community service or to an academic area that’s led to summer internships, etc. What can that student hang his or her hat on? Obviously, this idea can be applied to the world outside of college counseling, as we work with and nurture kids who can’t get enough of sea turtles or Alfred Hitchcock movies or raising money for the homeless.

I thought about edges when I spent two days at a charter school in a nearby urban center. That school easily had – let me say that again: easily had – the most vibrant, richest school culture I have encountered in any school during my almost 30 years of work. Yes, I know that I’m being hyperbolic, and perhaps I might ascribe equally strong school culture to some of the New England boarding schools that I’ve been to during my career, such as Belmont Hill and Exeter. But I had not experienced that kind of school culture for many years. It was revelatory to immerse myself in it for two days and see its impact on kids and staff and other community members.

School culture is a school’s climate, its atmosphere, its values. These authors call it core ideology. It defines the “enduring character of an organization – a consistent identity that transcends product or market life cycles, technological breakthroughs, management fads, and individual leaders.”

It is any school’s edge – what sets it apart from other schools. The building I visited showed its edge the moment I walked in. Thirty minutes at the start and end of each day was devoted to a school meeting that featured music, announcements, praise for student and faculty accomplishments, and rituals that have been with the school for its almost 15 years of existence. Craig Jerald writes in this brief about five kinds of behaviors at a school that “send strong signals about vision and values,” all of which I saw in abundance:

  • Rituals: celebrations and ceremonies, rites of passage, and shared quirks and mannerisms
  • Hero Making: role models, hierarchies, public rewards, and mentors
  • Storytelling: shared humor, common anecdotes, foundation myths, and both oral and written history
  • Symbolic Display: decoration, artwork, trophies, and architecture
  • Rules: etiquette, formal rules, taboos, and tacit permissions

The rituals and their language that I saw in the morning meeting continued in the classrooms, in the hallways; I was in a kindergarten class that spent the last few minutes of the class period preparing for its part of the end-of-school-day gathering. These little ones recited a poem, and their concentration showed me that they already knew how important this stuff was to the school.

Educators in schools with excellent school culture “talk about it and work on it as if it were a tool they can shape and wield to achieve outcomes they desire,” as Jerald wrote, and at this charter school, the school’s principal, other leaders, teachers, and other staff members were important to the transmittal of its culture. But I got the feeling that the school’s culture would do fine without them. It was such an integral part of the school that, in some ways, people did not matter. This school and its rich culture would live on, no matter who was there.

Some schools talk about having a vibrant school culture, but oftentimes that professed culture feels superficial once you spend time in the building. Some schools build their so-called culture around character issues, with words-of-the-week aligned with positive character traits – it’s Responsibility Week! – and the occasional all-school assembly with a speaker and skits. Hang out in these schools, and you find it’s pretty fake and that the real school culture has little to do with the professed culture.

If you’re interested in more about the school culture/character connection, read Casey Carter’s new book, On Purpose: How Great School Cultures From Strong Character. And here is Casey on C-SPAN Thanksgiving day morning.

Too many schools feel edgeless. Kids might perform well. The school might be a pleasant place, with smiling teachers and kids and leaders. But it feels managed, not led. It feels very unremarkable – unlike the school I visited. Or those that Casey profiles in his book. These are schools with edges, with chutzpah, schools that are confident of their successes and shout them out with uniqueness, with individuality. They always lead with their culture.

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4 Responses to Having an edge: Vibrant school culture

  1. Bob Scribner says:

    I teach in a high scoring school that has no edge. My school is managed and not lead. I imagine that the principal would like to lead more, but it would not be easy. Furthermore early in his position in my school he made it clear that if staff goes too far in a meeting they will be admonished. Also, the county does not feel that any high performing school can have a mediocre culture, but we do. Creating a dynamic culture would require a dynamic personality, a quality not present in our adminiatration.

    So we go through the day to day affecting what we can in our sphere of influence. From room to room the culture is drastically different. It could be so good. It is a shame.

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