Friday, May 23, 2014

Is Your School a Wal-Mart?

I think a lot about school culture. I'm fascinated by the way different schools have vastly different structures and practices that impact their unique climate. What determines the climate of a school? Well...we could start making a list:
  • What do you see when you are walking down the halls of the school? Bare walls? Covered with students' work? Artwork? Natural lighting? Flickering fluorescent bulbs? 
  • What does it sound like when you are in the building? Is it pin-drop silent? Is there a hum of busy activity? Is there a barely-contained roar of chaos?
  • How do teachers interact with students? Are the students treated like soldiers? Prisoners? Princes and princesses? Fellow learners?
  • How are decisions made, and who is involved in decision-making? Is it all top-down? Is it all bottom-up? A balance? Are teachers involved? Parents? Students?
  • How are parents involved? Held at arms-length? Expected to participate? Allowed access? Welcomed as partners?
  • What kind of work do students do? Open-ended? Teacher-directed? Experiential? Learning by rote? One-size-fits-all? A balance, based upon their needs and interests?
This is just a beginning! There are lots more questions we could raise, right? And I'm not even sure if there are "right" answers to these kinds of questions--it will depend on the needs and expectations of the school community.

Fundamentally, I think the key question in determining a school's climate is, "What is valued here?" or perhaps I could better phrase it, "What is it obvious that we care about?"

My Twitterfriend, Erik Ellefsen, shared an interesting take on this question of school climate that I'd like to pose to you now as well:

Maybe you've never thought about it in those terms before...but how would you describe your school's climate? Is your school a Sears? A Wal-Mart? A Target? A Nordstroms? An Amazon? What makes it that way? What descriptors would you offer for the culture of your school?

Image by alphageek [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]


  1. Thinking less about product and more about community, Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda is like Inglis Jewelers in Truro Nova Scotia (where I bought my wife's engagement ring). At this store, I walk in and know that the shop keepers will know who I am. They will ask about me and my family, they will show love, care, compassion, and laughs. They offer exceptional and unique products at a great price. Now that the advertisement is over... :-)
    Heritage has the warmest community of any school I have been a part of. When I saw the list of stores like Sears, Walmart, and Nordstroms, I couldn't even begin to connect Heritage to one of these big box stores.
    Thankful today for a great school and a great community!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jander! I totally agree: I think comparing schools to retailers is an analogy fraught with problems--WAY too reductionistic (as if students are something that could be bought off the shelf...) If I had to push the retail analogy, it sounds like maybe Heritage International School is more like a neighborhood store--the kind of place that knows your order before you come in, that customizes and fits to your unique specifications. I'm so thankful you have the chance to teach in a place like that, my friend!

  2. Our school, in Denton, TX, is like a used bookstore. There's new stuff, old stuff, good stuff, and stuff no one wants. Information is affordable and sometimes you can buy on credit from what you bring to sell. Essentially, it's only as good as the stuff people bring to it, including interests.

  3. I have talked about this article to other educators, since I first read it this summer. It has revolutionized my classroom significantly. I asked kids to bring in their own photos in picture frames. I have also put three keywords: inspire, create, kindness. I have bought dimming lights to mellow my classroom and focused on the colour on blue (which is traditionally calming). My question to you is: why is it when you walk into a church sanctuary you can see what the church stands for through banners and words and symbols. Why can't we see this in our classrooms?

    1. I *LOVE* hearing this, Victoria! Thanks for taking the time to comment--and to have this conversation with fellow educators!

      You raise an excellent question about words and symbols. I think it is probably clear and obvious about what we care about by the things on display in our room. Full of student work, and perhaps a little messy with projects in process? Speaks volumes about the teacher's view of the students and their role in the learning process, doesn't it?

      I love your idea about keywords in the classroom. I think "inspire," "create," and "kindness" are awesome descriptors for what I would hope happens in every classroom. I wonder what other teachers might use for their three key descriptors?

  4. Since we do not have wall space inside, we display our student creativity outside the room. When we enter the room, the prayer "Lord, send Your Spirit in this place." is the first thing posted. Our words would be "community", "love", "grow".