The Principal Connection / The Schoolhouse at Midnight - ASCD
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December 1, 2005

The Principal Connection / The Schoolhouse at Midnight

It's midnight, and everyone in his or her right mind is sound asleep. A spaceship has landed in your backyard, and three aliens have asked you to give them a tour of your school. So here you are, leading the way through the schoolhouse doors and flicking on the lights. As you show the aliens around, what messages do you think they are getting from looking at your halls and walls? What does the building's physical environment tell them about your school's values?

Any institution's halls and walls present an opportunity to broadcast values to internal and external audiences, but it's especially important for schools to seize this potential. Why schools in particular? Because most other organizations have clear consensus on their goals and on the behaviors required to achieve them, so it's not as crucial for the setting to communicate these aims and values. For example, the physical environment of an insurance company office does not necessarily need to reflect the company's objectives because the primary goal—maximizing earnings per share—is clear to staff and customers alike. A school's halls and walls, on the other hand, say more about its values because schools can define their primary goal—student growth—in any number of ways.

Think about it: What does student growth mean in your school? Is it academic achievement as measured by test scores? Are the arts important? How about emotional intelligence? Does your school value human diversity? Teach compassion? Are parents welcome? What your school chooses to place (or not to place) in its halls and on its walls sets a tone, frames attitudes, and influences behavior.

Let's take a tour of your school. When students enter the building, do they feel that it's their school? Is the space colorful and friendly, or is it filled with institutional rows of bland lockers? Are the expectations for student behavior phrased positively, or are they a series of statements about what not to do? Are the signs created by students or purchased at a teacher store? The most sophisticated adult sign has nowhere near the impact of a sign created by students, for students.

What about the messages parents receive when they enter your building? The signs may say “Welcome,” but does the rest of the building say the same thing? Is the visitor sign-in process pleasant, or do parents feel like they are entering a maximum-security prison? Is there a space in the hall that is inviting to parents and provides comfortable adult seating? In my school, we created a parent foyer complete with a coffeemaker, a couch, and easy chairs. The sign by the coffee urn says, “Parents, have a cup of coffee. Linger with us.” The wordlinger is a powerful statement about how we view parents. Regardless of whether or not a parent stops for coffee, they all know they are welcome in our school.

Now, what do your display cases look like? Are they filled with trophies from winning athletic teams, or do they also find space to honor those who came in second, or even last? First-place trophies have their place, to be sure, but if we recognize only the ultimate champions, what message are we sending our students? For that matter, what message do we send by celebrating only athletic participation? Do your display cases also feature the debate and chess teams? The entrants in the science fair and the spelling bee?

In the same vein, are your school's halls adorned with student work representing achievement in many different areas—in the arts as well as in writing or mathematics, for example? If so, do these displays feature diverse dimensions of student growth, even if some products are far from perfect? And if the only papers posted are those with perfect scores, what does that say to the struggling student? We often expound on the importance of student effort, but how can school displays reflect this value? One way is to post content from student portfolios, including student reflections, for everyone to see. Giving each student a chance to have his or her scholastic work displayed is a powerful motivator.

We can also use other media to celebrate student talent. Why not have a CD player by the door that greets everyone each morning with recordings of students' music recitals? A television with a DVD player can continually display student performances, as can photographs capturing students acting in the school play, marching in the band, or competing in athletics.

Although my school is not perfect, I feel good about the messages that emanate from our halls and walls. One thing we have learned over the years, though, is that it is not enough to tack up a jumble of student work on a bulletin board. We need to accompany each piece with an explanation—of the purpose of the work, why we chose to display it, and how it fits with our curriculum and goals. It is not enough for student work to be decorative; we must use it to educate everyone about our schools' core values and to celebrate the growth of all our students.

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Back in your school, the midnight tour has drawn to a close. The small green men tell you that it's time for them to return to their ship, so you turn off the lights, lock the door, and head home. In the morning, you awake and begin to think about how your school's halls and walls can better reflect the school community's values. You also think that you shouldn't eat pizza just before going to bed.

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