Does Your School Culture Match Your Values?

Photo: http://lacomadre.org/2017/06/strong-school-culture-can-secret-ingredient-successful-school/

Some schools just seem to beckon to you as you enter. Providing a sense of belonging and acceptance, they offer a warm atmosphere that is at once comforting and vibrant. Genuine learning occurs in those schools along with a spirit of support and camaraderie that you can feel throughout the building. Most important, both students and teachers enjoy being there.

That’s my kind of school. Its culture encompasses all the qualities I most value in a school: respect for teacher input and student voice; emphasis on teaching the whole child, including empathy for students’ struggles coupled with celebration of their progress; and multiple opportunities for everyone to thrive. Even though no school is perfect, schools like this—whose cultures reflect the values of their faculty, and not just that of the administrators—are more unified and a better place for those teachers to work. They’re usually a pretty great place for students to learn as well.

Conversely, schools that are misaligned with the values of their faculty tend to create an us-against-them work environment. This pits teachers and administrators against each other while also turning teachers and students into adversaries. The result is a seemingly endless war. Of course, students often are caught in the crossfire between teachers and administrators, quickly becoming casualties of the war. No one wins in that educational environment.

So here are the real questions: Does your school culture match your values? Does it line up with your educational philosophy? Does it correspond to your perspective on the best way to interact with students? How about your view of teachers’ professional autonomy and input — does your school’s culture run parallel to that?

All educators need to assess how much their school culture corresponds to their own educational values. To the extent that it does, that school’s culture becomes the foundation for educators’ professional excellence. It also undergirds students’ academic and individual success.

Likewise, when that school culture is contrary to educators’ values, that culture tends to undermine everything the teachers attempt to do. It also erodes students’ ambitions and even their confidence in their ability to accomplish them. Such cultures are centered around compliance, without regard for what really matters in education.

Now is a good time to reflect on your school’s culture, to make that assessment. In fact, even without asking yourself, you already know your level of satisfaction with the way your school is run, the atmosphere in which you work and students learn, the interactions among educators as well as between educators and students. If your satisfaction is high, congratulations on finding such a great work environment.

On the other hand, if your school’s culture is out of step with your values, unless the administration is revamped, you’re not likely to see an overhaul of that culture. You’re also not likely to thrive there. In that case, the only element left for you to determine is whether you belong there. Either way, your professional satisfaction depends on it.

The Shame of Lunch Shaming

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Consider this scenario: Laughing and talking, a group of students enters the cafeteria and heads for the lunch line. As they fill their trays and step forward in line, one student is singled out. His tray is taken by a cafeteria worker and replaced with a cheese sandwich and a container of milk as he is quite audibly told that his lunch account is not up to date. No longer laughing, the student takes the sandwich to a table and begins eating.

Have you heard of “lunch shaming”? A common practice, it has popped up in news reports repeatedly in recent years as school districts grapple with ways to handle it and parents, outraged, cry out against it. While the premise for the action—parents’ failure to pay for lunch—may seem like a valid reason for withholding students’ lunches, the impact on the students is devastating. That’s why this reprehensible practice needs to stop.

Part of the blame lies with the federal government’s mandate that school districts obtain household applications and then receive payment at either a reduced rate or the full rate from parents who are considered able to pay. Families below the poverty line are not required to pay, enabling children from those families to eat free. The problem is that not every family deemed able to pay actually is able. As a result, when they don’t pay, students are forced to pay the consequences.

And those consequences vary from district to district. Some provide a lesser lunch as in the opening scenario here. Others require students to clean the cafeteria after lunch. Still others demand that students wear wristbands to indicate their debt. A Minnesota high school was said to be prohibiting students from attending their graduation ceremony if they owed lunch money, which was averted when Superintendent Keith Ellison stepped in to prohibit the action. And an elementary school in Pennsylvania sent letters to parents, threatening to place their children in foster care if they failed to pay their lunch debt (a local businessman paid the debt). Ranging from the ridiculous to the outrageous, these consequences punish students for a situation beyond their control.

Yet there are solutions without any negative effect. Rather than shame students, the entire state of New Mexico, for example, provides free lunch for every student as does New York City, which has the largest school district in the country. Likewise, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome has just signed a bill outlawing lunch shaming in his state and guaranteeing that students will receive the same lunch, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.

Some other districts handle debt online or by phone, ensuring that students are not impacted in any way. What’s more, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA Food and Nutrition Service program, provides free meals for all students in low income districts. Eligible school districts need only apply for the program to receive reimbursement for breakfast and lunch based on students’ families participation in other government programs, not on household applications.

Lunch shaming is itself a shame. Students are innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a difficult situation. They are not responsible for lunch payments, so why punish them when that debt is unpaid? The shame, humiliation and degradation they then experience is real.

Schools that take draconian measures are the ones who should be ashamed—ashamed of making a bad situation exponentially worse for defenseless children. It’s time to care about the whole child and not just the money accrued through them. Stop the lunch shaming and devise a solution that leaves student dignity and self-worth intact.

The Case for Promoting Students

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If you reflect on your own third grade experience, you might recall a favorite teacher or subject, a best friend or a nemesis. But you probably don’t recall third grade as a watershed year. Yet, when it comes to reading competency, researchers say it is. In fact, one study indicates that reading below grade level in third grade is likely to result in four times the chance of dropping out of high school. That’s a rather dramatic conclusion.

With that potential outcome in mind, teachers often resort to retaining students. After all, the thinking goes, if a student can’t read on grade level in third grade, how can he or she possibly be successful in fourth grade? That’s why about 15 percent of students are retained in any grade each year, and anywhere from 30-50 percent are retained somewhere in K-12. However, while grade retention sounds quite plausible, the consequences of retention are a mixture of positive and negative, with a greater negative impact than most educators consider.

Obviously, for example, being held over is a serious blow to students’ self-esteem. Evoking feelings of inadequacy, shame and social discomfort, retention at this point in a student’s education—or worse, in a higher grade—causes a good deal of angst and anxiety that last for years to come. If we’re teaching the whole child, which should always be our goal, how can we in good conscience overlook this significant emotional side effect?

The fact that any benefits are short term is another negative factor. In Florida, for instance, keeping students in third grade caused fourth grade reading scores to skyrocket, yet eighth grade scores stagnated. So what was really gained?

Then there’s the racial component, which is reflected in the fact that students of color in urban schools are far more likely to be retained than white students with the same scores in affluent suburbs. Are we creating yet another means of devising gaps that are labeled as “achievement gaps” but are really opportunity gaps—the opportunities offered by money and other resources.

Likewise, boys have a higher retention rate than girls. This raises the issue of schools being structured in ways contrary to boys’ natural inclinations: their tendency to be restless, to speak a bit louder, to be more rambunctious than is usually permitted in a classroom setting where the expectation is that they will be quiet, still and focused for extended periods of time. While this is a topic worth exploring in itself, it can certainly engender a teacher bias against boys that can lead to their being held back more often than girls simply for acting like boys. Are we really comfortable with the prospect of punishing boys for being boys?

Sure, there is anecdotal evidence that some students benefit from being held back a grade, gaining skills and confidence. However, that’s not the story of the vast majority of students. So it’s time we tried alternatives. With an estimated $10,000 spent for each retained child, multiply that by the 15 percent of students retained each year, and that money might be better spent to obtain the services of reading specialists to help students gain the skills they lack. The growth in self-efficacy alone is worth that investment.

The point is that settling for the status quo of grade retention is the lazy way out. Students deserve the opportunity to develop their reading skills—skills that are transferable to every aspect of their lives. The least educators can do is provide every resource for students to develop those skills without exacting blows to their self-worth.

Data Driven? Let’s Be Student Driven Instead

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Data-driven. It’s a favorite buzzword among educators. In fact, boldly declaring your school or district to be data driven is meant to convey the seriousness of your approach to education. For those reading the term as part of a school’s motto, the words are intended as a statement of that school’s commitment to educational excellence. Similarly, sprinkling your conversation with the term among other educators becomes a way of demonstrating your educational savvy. But here’s the thing: data doesn’t tell you about the most important elements of your students.

Data doesn’t tell you how hard a student works, how many hours they spend figuring out challenging material, how much they care about their academic achievement. Likewise, data doesn’t tell you about a student’s caring heart, their commitment to the tasks they undertake, their dependability, their kindness or their integrity. In short, data tell you nothing about who the whole student really is but rather focuses on a small segment of their academic output to the exclusion of everything else. That’s neither a fair nor an accurate assessment, regardless of what the data indicates.

This is not to say that data has no value. Using it to determine students’ academic aptitude, for instance, enables teachers to discover their students’ strengths and weaknesses. That’s a good thing—particularly when the data becomes the basis for planning lessons centered on students’ needs. And that’s the point: Data should be used to help students, not produce bragging rights for a school or district. And certainly not to the detriment of students.

Instead, data can just as easily be used to skewer students, emphasizing their inabilities, highlighting their disqualification for the academic success they so ardently seek. Scores not high enough? Well, then forget about placement in an advanced class or having the opportunity to participate in elite academic programs and teams. Data can be the be-all and end-all of students’ academic lives.

The use of data as a measuring stick can also provoke anxiety in students. When standardized test scores, for example, become the determining factor for students’ educational future, without regard for progress, effort or other measures of aptitude, both the students and the school lose. In such instances, data, wielded as a weapon, bludgeons students, often encouraging them to surrender academically as achievement seems unattainable.

Educational buzzwords, along with the accompanying practices, will come and go. And the focus on data is no exception. However, in the meantime, let’s be student driven. need to Creating classrooms driven by students’ academic needs and interests, educators can renounce being driven solely by the implications of data. Students’ academic lives depend on this. And on us.

Do You Value Who Your Students Are?

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When you receive your class list, it’s just a collection of faceless names. Nothing about the individual students shows up on that list. In fact, even if you review their records, which isn’t a true reflection of all that each student is anyway, you still don’t know the people who will be seated before you during the upcoming school year.

Records don’t tell you students’ goals and dreams; they don’t indicate students’ gifts and talents; they say nothing of students’ compassion or kindness. Those are the real elements that help to define students. Instead, each student essentially begins the school year with a blank slate.

However, as the year progresses, those blanks begin to fill in, adding color, depth and dimension to the picture that is each student. Getting to know students individually is what fills in the blanks. Discovering who they are, who they hope to become and what they bring to the table, so to speak, allows teachers to learn the details that make each student distinct from other students just as much as it builds positive relationships between teacher and students. It’s the discovery of those details that I always liked most.

That’s why the concept of “assets-based teaching” appeals to me, despite my dislike for education buzzwords. A popular idea right now, it basically means using what a teacher knows about students’ abilities and talents to reach and teach them.

If an additional language is spoken at home, for instance, learning and using a bit of that language is culturally responsive, validating the students’ culture. I found out that this particularly resonates with students when I learned to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the languages of all my students who spoke other languages. Then, as I collected test papers or essays, I used the phrases. Students enjoyed teaching them to me as much as I liked learning and using them. It became a bond among us as well as a classroom tradition as the other students began picking up the phrases as well.

Allowing students to be the experts on topics in which they actually have expertise also nods to their abilities and talents. When I relied on the computer-savvy students to repair my computer glitches and encouraged well-traveled students or those who have lived in other countries to speak of their experiences as we discussed that part of the world, it gave students a platform for displaying their knowledge and for having that knowledge affirmed and appreciated.

Likewise, fostering an environment in which students feel free and safe to voice their fact-based opinions and to defend those opinions not only broadened viewpoints and empowered student voice but also nurtured nascent interest and careers in politics and public speaking. Those were students’ natural abilities that flourished in that setting.

So the question is this: Do you value who your students are? The only way to answer positively is to know each of them individually and then to create opportunities for the details that make each student unique and capable to shine. It’s just another way of reaching and teaching the whole child. Everyone benefits from the results.

Why the Books in Your Classroom Library Matter

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What was your favorite book as a child? Better yet, why was it your favorite? It likely resonated with you in a special way, was relevant to your individual life. That’s often why books become favorites. Unfortunately, many kids have to find those books outside of school, in libraries or bookstores, rather than in their own classrooms.

With the prominent role that technology has in education today, you might think that books have literally been put back on the shelves. That would explain why so many kids don’t find favorites in school. Yet that’s not the case. Books still abound. Even traditional textbooks are still used in many classrooms despite the increase in digital versions. What’s more, literature is still primarily read from real books, whether they are picture books in kindergarten or great literary works in high school. Still, many students never find a book that speaks directly to them.

The reason may well be in your own classroom library. Many students never see themselves reflected in those books. With white protagonists so often the standard and males the heroes, students of color and girls are left out. Yet, if these were just a few among an array of diverse books, there would be no issue. However, the impact as well as the implications are far reaching when such books are the norm:

  • Reinforces stereotypes – When white males are always the heroes in books, it advances the stereotype that girls and students of color aren’t capable of that role. This is detrimental to all students, as they all need to see girls and students of color in leadership roles.
  • Implies a level of inferiority – Similar to the negative impact of stereotypes, when students don’t see themselves reflected in books, the implication is that they are not worthy. Therefore, classroom libraries without a variety of students of color and a melange of cultures effectively deem them not noteworthy. Not only do the omitted students feel the sting of rejection and inferiority, but that viewpoint is adopted by other students toward them as well.
  • Denies students characters with whom they can identify – Lacking characters of the same race, ethnicity, language, culture or any other similarity leaves students without a character with whom they identify. This is particularly problematic when the book is read to the entire class in younger grades or assigned reading for older students. In such instances, the characters remain remote, their lives theoretical. While emotions and even some life experiences are universal, being able to identify with the characters makes literature more accessible to readers.
  • Limits students’ view of their options – Books, like movies and television shows, offer readers a view of potential choices. While students’ daily lives might not encompass certain careers, travels or artistry, books offer vicarious experiences. Reading of characters or real people depicted as lawyers, world travelers or ballet dancers, for instance, broadens students’ view of their own options. Of course, the reverse limits their view.

Education should both reflect who students are and broaden their definitions of who they can be. Diverse literature does both. That’s why the books in your classroom library matter. It’s also why they should encompass all that your students are, honoring and respecting them while also introducing them to one another. That’s just part of educating the whole child.

Building Classroom Community and Trust

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Most educators know that students learn more with teachers who have a strong and caring relationship with them. However, what’s often overlooked, particularly on the secondary level, is the importance of equally strong and healthy relationships among the students. After all, students are people first, and people simply do best when they can relax, when they can trust those around them, when they can share mutual respect and even appreciation for one another. All of this builds a sense of community.

That’s exactly what elementary schools have traditionally been better at doing, with all the students remaining together Continue reading “Building Classroom Community and Trust”