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March 23, 2022
ASCD Blog

The School Smile Quotient

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Let’s measure success by smiles, not test scores.
School CultureLeadership
The School Smile Quotient
Credit: nomadsoulphotos from Canva
As a school leader, how do you measure the quality of your school? It’s an important question to reflect on—and often. Take a moment to think of two or three indicators that determine success in your building. In my experience, enthusiasm for learning is key.
As a former principal and current leadership consultant, I frequently hear questions about school quality posed by parents trying to decide where to enroll their child. “What’s the best fit?” they ask me.
At other times, the question is raised by prospective principals in my graduate-level class on school culture. These students—typically teachers pursuing a master’s degree in education—are trying to understand what levers are most effective for improving the quality of a school.
As a starting point, I turn the question around: How do you think school quality should be defined? These emerging leaders usually have an answer, but it’s often the wrong one.

So, What Constitutes School Quality?

For generations, the wrong answer has focused either on student achievement, determined by students’ standardized test scores, or on the school’s graduation rate and/or the quality of colleges and universities where seniors matriculate.
While these are important indicators that a school is headed in the right direction, academic achievement is only part of what makes a school successful. Instead, I propose this: The quality of a school can be determined, in part, by its smile quotient.

The Smile Quotient

What’s a smile quotient? Simply put, a smile quotient is the number of students and staff who have a smile on their face as they work or learn, and I believe it reflects the joy in a school. A smile not only expresses an emotion, but also influences the emotional experience. When the smile quotient in a school is high, it means that people generally enjoy being there; they are confident in their role and anticipate success; and they encounter others with a warm and welcoming attitude. 
There’s even science behind it: The physical act of smiling releases chemicals in our brain, increasing our levels of happiness and lowering stress, research suggests. Smiling is good for us, both physically and mentally.
Of course, a high smile quotient does not mean that school is easy—for either the students or the staff. It does mean, at least in my experience, that people are engaging in meaningful and relevant activities, that they trust others around them to look out for their interests, and that learning is taking place.
Student smiles are often easier to come by—maybe a student aces a test, hits a presentation out of the park, or receives appreciation from a teacher for giving their best effort. Adult smiles, on the other hand, can be a bit more elusive. As a principal, I learned that trying to make all staff happy all the time was a road to disaster, as some of their priorities and interests naturally diverged and were not consistent with our school’s mission. It was not my job to make sure all staff members were smiling all the time. My job was to help everyone grow. But I did find that when I worked with my colleagues to create a setting in which collegiality—faculty members learning with and from one another—was the norm, teachers were happy.

When the smile quotient in a school is high, it means that people generally enjoy being there; they are confident in their role and anticipate success; and they encounter others with a warm and welcoming attitude.

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Tom Hoerr

For example, we formed committees of teachers to look at how to increase parent involvement, how to assess students’ multiple intelligences, and how to ensure that we valued the diversity of our students. Our solutions and recommendations helped students learn more effectively and the collaborative process itself helped our faculty learn. I learned with them and was happy too. Teachers smiled because they enjoyed learning skills and pursuing creative ideas that would benefit their students. They smiled because their students were smiling (and as research shows, smiling is contagious).
Of course, not everyone will smile, even when a school has a high smile quotient. Life has its challenges and so do schools. Indeed, if someone smiled all the time, I would wonder what was really going on with them. But in a school with a welcoming environment in which individuals feel known, seen, and heard, smiling becomes the norm. People smile because they are succeeding and because they want to be there.
What’s your school’s smile quotient and what might you do to raise it?

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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