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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

When It Comes to School Culture, Words Aren’t Enough

Educators must take systematic steps to ensure that a school’s mission and values are reflected in students’ and teachers’ actual experiences.
School CultureEngagement
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Credit: Brett Jordan / Unsplash
Schools have different cultures created by their beliefs, values, goals, and behavioral norms—cultures that are often described on a continuum from nurturing to toxic. An increase in cases of depression, instances of suicide, and violence among students, including the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, highlight the importance of creating the healthiest school cultures possible. Although educators may believe the culture of their school supports learning, community, and safety, their perceptions do not always match the experiences of the students or even the adults.
The process of defining and creating a healthy culture generally begins with writing a mission statement and articulating values. Educators can spend hours debating and selecting just the right words. For example, they might discuss the significant differences between "tolerance" or "acceptance" and "inclusion" or "belonging." Given educators’ shared goals of creating thriving, high-achieving schools, it is not surprising that they tend to select many of the same words, such as excellence, innovation, risk-taking, depth, creativity, empathy, wellness, life-long learners, etc. And once the words are hammered into handbooks and websites, it's tempting for the adults to believe that these aspirations capture the culture of the school.
But, of course, what matters more than the words themselves is their embodiment in actions, practices, and policies that create the culture. And then, how each person—students, teachers, staff—actually experiences the culture determines the degree to which reality reflects a mission statement. Unfortunately, schools often conflate words with reality.

Misalignment of Stated Values with Actual Culture

Writing a mission is certainly an important first step, but the steps that come next will shape the actual culture:
  • Examining carefully the school's practices and policies to ensure that they embody mission and values
  • Gaining meaningful insight every year from students and adults about their experiences; being conscious of the outside factors—societal values, social media, college admission pressures—that can undermine a school's mission
  • Working to understand students’ subculture, or the world of the young that is typically hidden from adults but that very much influences a school’s overall culture
For example, what do we mean when we claim academic excellence as an attribute of a school's culture? Are our aspirations supported by our practices? A closer look at the culture might reveal that the school's structures and practices communicate an emphasis on grades over learning, despite a statement that purports to cultivate lifelong learning and deep thinking. The existence of honor rolls, honors societies, and awards assemblies, the conversations about grades and test scores that take place in the college counseling office, and the respect with which students with high grades are treated in classrooms compared to those with lower grades—all these might be factors in creating a school culture much different from the one espoused by educators.
Other elements of a school's design, including its traditions, policies, and routines, need the same scrutiny to determine if they are likely to support or negate the mission’s ideals. This need is illustrated in the voices of a few representative students who responded to open-ended questions about their experiences at one high school where I taught. Some of the responses were written specifically to me; some were oral responses to a teacher who posed questions in a class discussion that I recorded; and one was posted publicly on Instagram:
"I think I figured out somewhere pretty early on that school was a game where the goal was to get the highest GPA with the least amount of effort. I don't know if this attitude was particularly conducive to learning.”
"Well, we are teenagers. We know that colleges look at grades. Thirty years from now, I'm not going to need what I learn in history class, but right now, I need to know it for the grades. That's the drive behind everything — needing the grades."
"If we have homework and we can flip the pages back and forth and get the answer, we are going to do it. We get hours of homework every night, and we want to get done what we can fast. If we can short-change something else, get it done quicker, we're going to do it."
Another student posted an Instagram comment about the pain he endured as a Black student at school, which reveals the chasm between reality and the school's written commitment to community and respectful dialogue:
"I would constantly hear students use the n-word around me or say it directly to me. I would always try to gain up the strength to explain why they shouldn't be saying that. Nobody ever listened. It was exhausting and demoralizing to know that I was surrounded by people who wouldn't care about how they hurt me."
The words these students used certainly clash with the lofty claims the school made to describe its values: “excellence in academics,” “critical thinking,” “diversity,” “respectful dialogue,” and “community.” The students’ words capture the conflict between aspiration and experience that is present in many schools. In fact, the students’ words challenge educators to look more closely at the relationship between mission and reality. During my years working in six different schools, I regret to say we never truly explored this mismatch, and, based on my conversations with colleagues in other schools, I believe this neglect is not uncommon.

Assessing School Culture

Of course, working to align a mission statement with practices and policies offers no guarantee that students will experience the culture as we hope. Equally essential is creating a structure for monitoring the culture. Although the specific process will vary from school to school, one strategy might be to establish a permanent race- and gender-representative committee, for example: two students, two teachers, two administrators, two staff members, and one board member, charged with ensuring the alignment of mission and reality by designing and leading an annual cultural review process.
The goal of this process is to gain insight into how those in the institution experience its culture. I have learned that the only meaningful way to understand students' perceptions of the culture is to ask them—to give them time to respond to open-ended questions, using a combination of written responses and one-on-one conversations with an adult. Surveys (closed questions that ask for numerical ratings or strong agreement/disagreement) are not as effective because they don’t allow for emotional, interpersonal engagement, nuanced explanation, and deeper exploration—all of which can be important in counteracting the propensity for adolescents to say what they think adults want to hear and for adults to hear what they want to hear.
Conversation, especially, can move adults closer to the intricacies and subtleties of truth. Even chatting with those whose experiences seem aligned with a school's mission can be helpful to learn more about the sources of structural support they experience. Because having these conversations requires mutual trust and respect, the review committee will need to involve many of the adults in the school in the follow-up interviews with selected students. Advisors, teachers, and administrators are likely to be the most effective having candid conversations with students with whom they already have close relationships.
These conversations can provide important insight into the many factors that affect a school’s culture, including the outside forces that affect it. Although schools are not ivory towers immured from society, their mission statements reflect an idealistic desire to create an environment free of much of the nastiness of the world. But schools contain people, and people bring with them the behaviors and values of society. Students can be quite good at hiding these behaviors by operating during hours and in places invisible to adults, including online.
Although glimpses into this world will likely remain few, the conversations during the culture-review process can provide some awareness of how events outside of school grounds influence students' experiences of the school culture. Educators can talk all they want about kindness and wellness and inclusion, offer DEI workshops, act as role models, praise the good behavior they see, and convince themselves that all is well, but they cannot address problems they cannot see.
Most educators know all this, so it is puzzling that so many are surprised by those moments when teachers are revealed as abusers, when star students are caught selling drugs or bullying, or when parents help children cheat. Identifying and combating outside forces that threaten school culture is a challenge that must be intentionally embraced in candid discussions.

Assessing Outside Forces

One outside factor deserves particular exploration: the effect of college admissions offices on the ability of schools to attain their aspirations for creating a healthy academic environment consistent with current research into the science of learning. Students should not experience the claim of "excellence in academics" in mission statements as a cynical grade-grubbing "game" whose reward is college admissions but whose effect is antithetical to learning. Such comments illustrate a need to rethink and redesign K-12 education.
Unfortunately, the freedom to explore truly fundamental change is restricted by college admission expectations that lock schools into, for example, the traditional distribution of graduation requirements: four years of English, three years of math, etc. Too many students experience high school as a pressure cooker for college-induced resume-building—high GPAs and SATs, arrays of APs, lists of sports and other activities. The results, even before the additional stresses of COVID, are that increasing numbers of young people arrive in college already burned out. Educators need to be free from college admissions offices to radically rethink not just graduation requirements but the many other college-influenced traditional policies and practices that affect school cultures.

Although schools are not ivory towers immured from society, their mission statements reflect an idealistic desire to create an environment free of much of the nastiness of the world.

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Once a review committee has gathered all this information, its next step is to analyze the degree to which intention, design, and reality coincide. Which students experience the culture positively? Which do not? What systemic obstacles exist? What outside forces require strategic engagement? Would any of the various constituents of the school benefit from more active attention or involvement? The committee will create for the head of school and school board an annual report on the state of the mission—with specific recommendations for needed improvements. Ideally, given their role as “guardians of the school’s mission,” the head and board members will also read all the written responses generated during the assessment and, to the extent possible, might participate in some of the follow-up conversations.

Where Teacher Experiences Come In

Understanding how teachers experience school culture is also essential. In a recent essay posted on the National Association of Independent Schools’  Independent Ideas blog, school head Brent Kaneft writes, "[T]here is no world where a teacher’s performance and a student’s performance are separable. . .  [T]eacher wellness is so crucial because it is interdependent with student wellness and with the health of the community."
In my experience, teacher wellbeing, which is dependent on feeling valued, is intimately connected to school culture. High teacher morale lays the foundation for strong faculty-student relationships and a positive culture. Over the past few years, studies and polls have shown that one of the main factors in teacher shortages is frustration over not being consulted or heard. Teachers working in truly democratic schools seem to be happier. Their voices matter in making decisions affecting the work they do with students—decisions about curriculum or changes in structures, policies, and practices. In faculty meetings, these teachers feel encouraged to present ideas that challenge the status quo, to disagree and debate (collegially and civilly) with each other and with administrators and to vote on whether to adopt or reject new structural or policy initiatives. These teachers are more likely to have some control over their working life. The healthier they are, the healthier their students are.
To understand how the adults in a school are experiencing its culture, it is essential that the review committee design a cultural assessment process for them, too. An effective process will include written responses to open-ended questions and, as time allows, follow-up conversations conducted by administrators (principals, school heads, deans of faculty, and board members). Board members and school heads need to understand the experiences of the adults who interact with students because those interactions will co-create the culture. Autocrats and other leaders who cannot handle questioning or disagreement hamper the creation of a successfully aligned culture of excellence; school boards and trustees have a responsibility to protect their school from such leadership.

Envisioning New Solutions

Every school has the responsibility to ensure that it achieves what its mission claims—that its ideals are embodied in reality. The wellbeing of our children and our teachers depends on it.

Alden Blodget has been an educator for over 50 years, including an English and theater teacher, arts department chair, and an assistant head of school. He is currently a volunteer writing tutor at LEAP for Education in Salem, Ma., where he works with high school students.

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