Thursday, November 29, 2012

Climate and Culture

This post has been rattling around in my brain since I attended the Michigan School Improvement conference back on November 9. I think it has aged well enough now for me to get some of my thoughts down and to invite some discussion from the crowd.

The keynote speaker for the conference was Baruti Kafele. I won't spend time telling you all about who he is, other than to say he was a principal in New Jersey for over 20 years. And he carries a great message with him. If you want to learn more about him, you can go here.

Kafele's keynote address, and a subsequent break-out session that I attended, were on the topic of addressing climate and culture in our schools in order to create improvement, change, and achievement. I really connected to his definition, which he explained this way: Climate = mood; Culture = lifestyle.

He maintains that we need a mood and a lifestyle in our buildings that allow students to want to be successful. This reverberates with me, especially in my work with at-risk, struggling students. So many of my kids put on the show that it is cool to be dumb. They seem to lack drive, ambition, or motivation to work to learn. Even the students who are not "at-risk" seem much less capable of being tenacious and persevering when things get complicated. So, how can we change the mood in our school so that it is acceptable, even necessary, to be smart; where hard work is rewarding because students can see it pays off in learning; and where the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing, not something that labels you a "nerd" or a "dork" or a "teacher's pet"?

I believe it has to begin with the adults in the building. Do we live what we say we believe? Kafele, in his talk, shares a reflection that he does in the mirror daily. It is one he also teaches to his students. It involves asking three questions:

"Who am I?" 
What kind of person do you really believe that you are? There is no point in lying to the mirror. Nobody else has to know. Actually, most people already have an idea of who you are. I think the key is, does their perception match yours, and is it one you want to live up to?

"What am I about...what is my purpose?"
This question gets at the heart of your belief system. You could answer this from any facet of your life...what is my purpose as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a teacher? If you see yourself as one who disseminates information, your actions are going to be different than someone who sees themselves as one who guides others in becoming learners and thinkers.

"What evidence do I have to prove it?"
I think that this question has the power to hit where it hurts and to drive us to change, if change is needed. If you hold the belief that all students can learn, what evidence do you have that proves it? If you believe that education should be student centered, what evidence do you have that proves it? If you can't come up with evidence, is there something in your practice that needs to change? How can you make a plan to initiate that change?

So I tried it, and at first it seemed a little silly to me to take the time every day to carry out this reflection. I'll admit that I don't do it every day. Somehow, just this morning, I got behind in my morning routine and was still working the curling iron in my hair when I should have been headed out the front door. But I have done the reflection enough that I can feel my thinking grow and change. Throughout the day, I will notice behaviors in myself and I will ask myself, "How does what I just did reflect who I want to be?" Sometimes I am proud of myself, knowing that I am living my beliefs. Other times I am disappointed that my actions don't match who I want to be, but those realizations are necessary in order to eliminate those behaviors and actions.

I have also begun to notice behaviors in people around me. Just this morning, a colleague of mine yelled at a student. Loudly enough that I heard it down the hall from in my office. Loudly enough that if I were that student, I'd have been a puddle of sobbing goo on the floor. Loudly enough that if it were my own child being yelled at, my Mama Bear claws would have come out in a flash. And it made me think, is that really the kind of person that teacher wants to be? Does that teacher really believe it is ok to treat students with such disrespect? How are the actions of that teacher affecting the climate and community of our entire building? And most importantly, I wonder how to open this conversation with staff in order to change the climate and community in our building so that it is a place our students, all of them, look forward to learning and growing in?

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