Friday, September 14, 2012

Students as Sculptors of Culture & Climate

Ever notice when you walk into a school there is a distinct "feel" to the place? More than physical space, each school emits a certain "feel". 

Schools have unique and differing "vibes".

When we usually mention a school's "tone" or "feel", we are usually referring to its climate.

A school's climate "denotes the ethos, or spirit".  As Gruenert, 2008 writes, "school climate is thought to represent the attitude of a school".    

Researchers have attempted to distinguish between a school's climate and culture. If the climate is the "attitudes and feeling of school" the culture might be seen as the "personality" of a school.
An organization’s culture dictates its collective personality. .....(I)f culture is the personality of the organization, then climate represents that organization’s attitude. It is much easier to change an organization’s attitude (climate) than it is to change its personality (culture). Gruenert, 2008
Other researchers write that a school's culture: a system of shared values (what is important) and beliefs (how things work) that interact with a company’s people, organizational structure and control systems to produce behavioral norms.” (Leontiou, 1987)
Yet another writes,
culture is the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges. (Deal, 1993)
Most experts in the field would agree that school culture comprises the values, shared beliefs, assumptions, behavioral norms, and expectations of a school.

Students as Sculptors of Climate and Culture

When researchers and practitioners talk about about shaping culture or climate, they usually talk about the adults in the building  - their decisions, teaching pedagogy,  interactions with students, colleagues, parents and community members.

What is not mentioned enough - in the context of shaping and sculpting school culture - are students. 

 In this context, students are typically reduced to passive recipients and "responders" of these outside forces.

I would suggest that students need to be empowered to be co-creators of school culture and climate.

Here are a few ways that adults in school can facilitate students as culture and climate creators:

1. Be clear and get out of the way.  Students don't need to be controlled. They need to be given clear, fair  and consistent expectations. Once expectations are in place, get out of their way and give up control.

2.  Be prepared to support students when they slip up.  They will.  Be patient.  Revisit your expectations frequently.  

3. Give Them An Inch and They'll Take a Mile.  Students want to make a positive difference.  They want to be trusted.  They want to be leaders.  Find ways to give them that "inch"  - you'll always be surprised where they take it!

4.  Rigidity creates compliance not leadership. Sometimes adults in schools become obsessed with rules and systems.  Schools that that place systems and rules ahead of relationships feel "cold" and breed compliance - not leadership.

5. Give them a job that has enduring value.  Students want meaningful responsibility. As much as they enjoy doing jobs like "cleaning" or "handing out" - students yearn to want to make a trans-formative difference in the lives of others.  (e.g. Mentorship Programs, Peer Programs, Social Justice Programs, Student Affairs, Parliament, etc) 

6. Ask students for their input.  Whether a classroom teacher, administrator, central office staff, parent - if you want to find out how things are really going in your school - ask the students. No judgement, no interruptions, no consequences.  Just ask and they'll tell you the brutal truth.   

School's that have both adults and students  as climate and culture "sculptors" have a greater likelihood of having an authentic community - driven by shared purpose and passion and collectively supported by all..

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Coffee Shop School

This past summer I've been blessed to have the opportunity to travel extensively.

Throughout my travels I enjoyed searching out the perfect cup of coffee at the perfect coffee shop.  My travels brought me to small neighborhood coffee shops  and "big chain" coffee shops.

Today, as I  sit and compare the two types of shops, the differences are profound.

Generally speaking, the big chain coffee shop looked new and modern but often felt "cold".  I got the sense that these shops were driven by profit and finding economies of scale and savings at every corner. 
Service and relationships were not necessarily the first priority.

Coffee at famous Nicola Cafe (Lisbon)
Most of he neighborhood coffee shops I visited, on the other hand were built on  service and relationship.  These shops usually had character.  No two shop looked the same.   As a visitor, I noticed that the employees knew the  name of every local that walked in.  Visitors were welcomed and made to feel that they belonged.   They did more than take  orders.  They were patient with indecision at the counter.  They even offered suggestions.  They spent time with people, providing any and all advice.  They were patient with  questions.   While they needed to be competitive in price, they were not driven by economies of scale.

Sitting in these coffee shops, I thought about how schools and the teachers and staff within them need to be like the neighborhood coffee shop.

Here a list of some traits of a "coffee shop school":

  • The "coffee shop" school needs to be a place of warmth and comfort.  It needs to exude character and uniqueness.  It should be a place to hang out.  A place of both silence and conversation.

  • The coffee shop school needs to be a place rooted in  relationships.  The adults in these schools  shouldn't  impatiently take orders or just provide the basics (e.g.  good pedagogy, wifi, tables, chairs, desks,  textbooks, worksheet, website, etc.).  We need to patient with "indecision", mistakes and questions.    We need to  get to know each and every student and their needs, dreams and aspirations.  

  • Leaders in the coffee shop school need to make decisions that enable relationship building.  Scheduling, timetabling and  budgeting are but a few tangible examples where leadership can make a huge difference if decisions are informed by a "students first" mindset.  

  • Like the neighborhood coffee shop that is not driven by economies of scale and profits, schools shouldn't be driven by test results.   It is particularly devastating when we measure the effectiveness of our schools based on these tests.We shouldn't rate schools against each other. 

  • We should ask our students what they think about their school.  Ask them if school excites them.  Ask them if they feel that teachers care about them.  Ask them if they feel safe at school.    Ask students if they want to hang out at school?  

This is at the core of the coffee shop school. 

The coffee shop school is place of connections and relationships.  Where individual needs are met and dreams are realized.