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School culture check

Does your school culture push beyond compliance to foster creativity? Read a tale of two schools.

5 min read


time for change


One of my teacher friends recently transferred schools. She is teaching the same developmental age group, the same content area, in the same district, at a school less than 10 minutes from her previous school.

But that is where the similarities end. These two schools, in reality, are worlds apart.

Emily’s first school, where she began her teaching career just over three years ago, serves a diverse population of students — 84% students of color — many of whom are English-language learners. Approximately 70% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch. Her new school includes 62% students of color, and 35% are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch.

A few miles apart geographically; a world apart socioeconomically.

The disparity between the two schools is noticeable, externally and internally. Her first school is dark, with low ceilings, brick walls, and middle-school class sizes of over 35 students each. Her new school, built early in this century, includes windows, spacious classrooms, and bright hallways. Her current average class size is 21 students.

The teaching and learning experience is distinctly different as well. Emily’s old school rewards compliance and expects uniform learning objectives and student behavior. School leaders frequently pressure and belittle teachers when standardized testing data is deemed substandard. In contrast, her new school embraces student choice and teacher autonomy, while trusting educators to word objectives and make teaching and learning decisions based on their expertise and their students. Her new school readily provides resources in the form of supplies, technology or personnel to serve the whole child.

Her story is familiar. We know equity issues plague our public schools, and far too often, students who come to school with the fewest material resources face the same opportunity gap inside school walls.

But her experience also makes me think about equity for educators. As an early career teacher, Emily was managing a caseload of 120 middle-schoolers and multiple preps in different grade levels. In her new school as a fourth-year teacher, Emily sees just over 60 students a day, has only one prep, and teaches three block classes (in the same content and grade level).

By transferring to a new school, Emily cut her grading and family contact load in half. For the first time in her career, she isn’t afraid of any top-down repercussions for taking risks, trying something new, or wording her learning objective in a way that supports her students instead of her evaluator.

Too often, the teachers who need the most autonomy, agency and encouragement to take risks, are bound by expectations of compliance. The practitioners who need to feel safe practicing and reflecting to creatively meet a range of students’ needs, are judged by data disconnected from the day-to-day learning experiences and authentic relationships they are working to foster for students who need them most.

So, what can principals do? Regardless of your school’s statistics, creating the following conditions can move a school culture from compliance to teaching and learning by design:

Validation and affirmation: Pointing out what’s working in a classroom is as important as providing growth-oriented or constructive feedback. Educators are often so consumed by the act of teaching and learning, they find it challenging to take a metacognitive view of their own practice and student learning. Emily reflects on being painfully aware when something wasn’t working, but rarely taking the time to celebrate her own or student successes. Leading with strengths models an asset-based mindset and the high expectations both staff and students need to thrive.

Opportunities to take risks: Emily reflects on the language her principal used during her second year of teaching when the school was asked to pilot a new curriculum resource. “She assured us that we would be implementing the new resource over time and that it would take time. We weren’t expected to ‘get it right,’ immediately, and it was clearly stated mistakes were okay long as we were learning, digging into the resource, and approximating.”

Focus on one thing: The curriculum pilot provided Emily with another gift — the opportunity to focus on one thing at a time instead of many different or competing initiatives. Over the course of two years, she was able to refine the structure of her workshop and her mini-lessons because all of her energy was devoted to improving the timing, structure and outcome of each lesson. This allowed her to transfer a toolbox of pedagogical knowledge and skills into her new teaching assignment.

Informal mentoring and networking: Affirm and encourage professional learning in the margins. When Emily began videotaping her practice, she became her own instructional coach, reflecting on the pacing, engagement and results of her teaching. She shares that it is her “informal mentors” — those colleagues she sought out when she had questions or invited into her classroom to provide feedback — that made a difference in her practice and her efficacy as an educator. Embrace unstructured and organic professional learning and provide teachers with the time and space to learn from and with one another.

While small twinges of guilt enter her gut when she thinks about her students at her first school, including the teachers they need and the learning experiences they deserve, Emily admits her life as a professional is better at her new school. Less stressful, more balanced, and full of the conditions that will allow her to continue to develop and refine her practice.

How does your school’s culture push beyond compliance to foster creativity?

Pseudonym used to protect teacher’s identity.

Jessica Cuthbertson is a National Board Certified Teacher with 14 years of experience in the field of K-12 education. She has worked as a middle-school literacy teacher, instructional coach and facilitator of teacher leadership initatives. She currently serves as the Colorado state captain of her region’s Core Advocates network. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, she “geeks out” on adolescent literature, edu-blogging and issues of policy and practice. Connect with her on Twitter @JJCuthy.