The second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.
It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.
Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.
The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.
The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.
The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.
The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.
It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.
Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholdersâ€”faculty, staff, students, parentsâ€”have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:
The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prisonâ€”massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.
This was an elementary school. (45)
I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.
I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.