The Heart of School Culture

Book: How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey
Image Credit: ASCD

“Create your school culture” is common advice that administrators receive on social media, in blog posts, in academic journals and beyond.

But, the quandary with the phrase, “create your school culture” is that it creates assumptions. Assumptions, like:

  1. A school culture does not exist until you say it does.
  2. You can create school culture yourself.
  3. The end result is a finished product.

The fact is that none of the assumptions above will bring sustainability or excellence to an organization’s culture.

Instead…

We have to shift our thinking to understand:

  1. A school’s culture is always existent. But, that does not necessarily mean that the culture is positive or in sync.
  2. It takes the efforts of every single person in the school to build a school culture that prospers.
  3. School culture is not an end result, it is something we have to work at every second of every day

School culture is the daily interactionsseen or unseen, the values among peopleshared or unshared, and patterns of behavior. Moreover, the school culture is its people.

As leaders and educators, we each have to take personal accountability for the energy we bring to the spaces we occupy: Hallways, classrooms, and every inch of our building. Our values and actions have to match up in order for our culture to flourish. Whether we realize it or not, we each are currently setting either a positive or negative tone in our building- And our people are taking notice. 

In the book, “How to Create a Culture of Achievement in Your School and Classroom” by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian ask this question:

“Can our school be so welcoming, so inviting, and so comfortable that every person who walks through our doors believe that they are about to have an amazing experience?”

What if we all asked this question constantly? 

What if we all LIVED by this question?

In order to build a welcoming space, it will begin with each of us having conversations with one another to change the paradigm behind the language and meaning of school culture: How do we view it? What does it mean to us? How do we value it? What do we do about it?

Shaping a positive school culture takes time, consistency, and unity. At the heart of any positive culture is a desire to move collectively towards the future and giving one another grace for mistakes made.

In closing, as Henry Ford says, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” 

Image Credit: Slo Dive

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Be the Man in the Arena

 

Image Credit- Kara Knollmeyer
Previously published post- 2016

On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt delivered the “Citizenship In A Republic” speech in Paris, France. The small excerpt from his 35-page speech, which you see above, is widely known as the Man in the Arena. This notable passage was most arguably the finest speech of Roosevelt’s entire Presidency.

It is remarkable that a message stated over 100 years ago can be just as powerful, magical, and moving; When a message can touch generations, there must be a common thread that people can relate to time and time again.

After much introspection, here are my six takeaways from the Man in the Arena:

1. Feel your fears

In many cases, the critic is someone who is just fearful as the man in the arena; Fearful of their inadequacies, fearful that they could be more successful than measure, and fearful that others may know more and be more than them. Feel your fears. OWN your fears. Do not let your fears embody a critic mindset that flattens the spirit and gusto from those around you. Feel your fears and deal with your own insecurities first and foremost.

2. Be Brave

Everyone feels inadequate at some point in time. It takes pure guts and bravery to overcome inadequacy and trying times. We are each capable of becoming the metaphorical “Man in the Arena.” Moreover, any critic can turn into a champion if they have the steady heart to persevere.

3. Discomfort Equals Growth

Putting yourself out there is not easy, and no one said it was. Furthermore, I do not think it is supposed to be easy; It is supposed to be meaningful. Times of discomfort prove that you are growing and learning. Accept it and appreciate the uncomfortable process.

4. Focus on the Man in the Arena

It is not about the critic. the naysayers are usually not the individuals evoking change…The man in the arena is.

Sometimes it can appear that critics are as prevalent as your need to blink. When you are the “Man in the Arena,” you may feel like a spectacle under the watch of analysis. Stay steadfast with your doggedness and zeal. In time, you will see the successes of your efforts.

5. Do Not Judge

If you see an individual struggling- that is not their story. If you see a highly successful person- that is not their only story. Perception is not reality. The beauty of life is that each individual is a unique collection of stories; One snapshot of someone’s life does not tell all. Do not judge a person for their highs or their lows in life, because there is always more unseen and left to understand.

6. Be an Advocate

Nothing is done well without passion. Find something worth fighting for and go after it. By doing so, your zest for life will rise exponentially. When you love what you are doing, you start giving less emphasis to the critics; The doers are too busy to be worried about the critics anyhow. Focus more on the vision, more on the future product, and refrain from sweating the small stuff.

Remember:

If you do not advocate for what you want or what you believe in, people assume and interpret that it is not of value.

Here’s to all the men and women in the arena…

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Engaging vs. Empowering Students

Inspiration

If you have read “The Innovator’s Mindset,” you will remember George’s idea on the difference between “engaging” students and “empowering” students. Through the differentiation that George made between the two concepts, I started reflecting on intangible and tangible results that I have experienced as an educator in the classroom which inspired me to create the infographic above.

Student-Led Learning

As an educator, I’ve always been intrigued on teaching students through student-led learning. “Student-led” or “student-centered” learning can take on different meanings depending on the circumstance or the interpreter. I knew that I wanted to empower my students through this process. I did not want to be THE keeper of the knowledge, instead, I wanted to be the caretaker of student talent.

Needless to say, it can be overwhelming to begin such a mindset shift. “Big ideas” are wonderful, but to be implemented properly, it is beneficial to think of your “big idea” in mini-steps, while reflecting and changing footing as you go.

Therefore, to start my student-led process, I first started by recruiting my students and gaining their help. Together, we took student goals and learning standards and reworded them to student-friendly language. In time, students then started leading small reading goal setting groups and conferring groups.

Learning Curve

I must say that success in these groups did not happen overnight. There was a HUGE learning curve, for myself and for students, but that is okay. My students were not used to leading and being “in charge” and I was not used to it either; These symptoms were a direct side effect of inexperience. But, instead of chalking up the attempts as failures, I started asking my students what they felt they needed to successfully lead groups and to work as a team.

Fact: If you ask 6th graders for “honest feedback” you will get just that. They usually do not hold back; Which is terrifying and humbling all at the same time. Nonetheless, their answers surprised me: They said they needed to learn “how to work together” and how to “help other kids to talk when they wouldn’t say anything.”

I pride myself in using collaborative skills and cooperating learning strategies, so their honest feedback was an eye-opener for me. However, I took a step back and realized that in my cooperative learning techniques, I was showing them how to be collaborative in well-structured settings where I was overseeing every interaction. As a result, when the tables turned and students led the groups, they were not able to apply these collaborative skills to new settings that were completely unfamiliar.

In other words, “I,” the teacher, was leading the movement and swooping in as needed rather than allowing them to learn organically. In my infographic above, I give general statements that fit under “engagement” and “empowerment,” although many could fit in both columns. Likewise, this does not mean that student engagement does not matter. It does matter. But, if we think of how we learn as adults, most of us would rather be in the driver seat to a certain degree, rather than sitting in passenger seats waiting for delivered information at a uniform pace. It is a balance. I wish I could create a formula of instruction that works in all cases, but I cannot. As we all know, it depends on the individual learner and what that learner needs at any given moment.

As George Couros says, “Should we be a sage on the stage, the guide on the side, or the architect of learning? – The answer is that teacher should be all of those. The art of teaching is figuring out when you should be which one.”

“We’re All in This Together”

Consequently, through listening to straightforward feedback from my students, I was able to help model interactions that were more conversational based from student-to-student. I quickly saw students taking their own spin on how they spoke and interacted with others. Looking back, I believe that with time and practice, students became more comfortable with more freedom and lack of limits.

But, when I say” lack of limits,” it is important to note that I am not implying that high standards and expectations were not set. Alternatively, through consistent student input, I did not need to constantly iterate MY expectations and mine alone. Instead, the process was natural; It allowed for all of us to come together to build reasonable expectations as a team. The instruction moved from teacher-led to student-led, to “we are all in this together.”

Through watching my students excel through the steep learning curve, I learned how to reangle my approach. It was never about students leading in the first place, it was about students needing to feel heard and valued. Once individuals feel that their opinions evoke real change, leadership and empowerment naturally happen.

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