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August 1, 2019

Essentials to Building a Positive School Culture

After being out of the art classroom for 25 years, I recently returned to teach summer art classes. I was confident that I could do the job with ease. I was an accomplished, retired educator – a successful principal, classroom teacher, and art teacher. Piece of cake.

The first week welcomed two classes, one with students ages 6-10 and the other with students ages 11-13. With lessons planned and materials organized, I was ready, but the result was nothing short of disastrous. Behaviors were out of control, especially with the older students, and work quality was poor. I could blame the kids, the program, or the teacher. Without a doubt, it was the teacher.

Before week two, I knew that I had to work on the culture of the classroom if I wanted to be successful and, more importantly, if the students were going to be successful.

The culture of a school is defined by its set of beliefs, values, and relationships. And although every school staff should spend time to define their beliefs and values about educating children, relationships are what hold the key to a positive school and classroom culture.

After 30-plus years in education, I have concluded that there are three do’s and don’ts that support strong relationships and, thus, a positive culture in your building and classroom.

Connection vs. Alienation

Having a connection with another person is essential to building relationships. It’s finding out, from every student, what is important to them. What interests them, what do they dislike, what commonalities do you share, and how do they like to learn? By making a personal connection, you begin to build trust.

When your students trust you, they will be willing to take risks and do anything to please you. This is particularly true of students with behavior problems. Alienation will cause defensiveness, which will result in attention-seeking or disruptive behaviors.

It’s no different for principals. Making a connection and creating a relationship with every staff member is how you shape your team. This is done by asking staff about their families, showing compassion when they are going through personal crisis, and asking “How are you?” every day. Roll your sleeves up and work beside them so that you experience with them. You have to know your team in order for them to work hard and work together toward the common goal of educating students.

Build Up vs. Tear Down

To maintain relationships, students and staff need to be built up through continuous praise for what they have done well and for efforts of trying. Students must first be told what is expected, then shown, and finally supported when initial attempts fail. Pointing out and praising efforts will push a student to keep trying and be successful.

Pointing out what they did wrong will only cause students to shut down and possibly lash out. They won’t build perseverance, and the focus on learning will decrease. Praise, praise, and more praise is necessary.

Adults need to be built-up in the same way. Being discredited and discouraged by leadership will instantly result in low morale. Negative talk will prevail, and work productivity will decrease. Teachers need support and resources to do their job. Mistakes and misunderstandings will happen. These are the most crucial times for administrators to build teachers up by providing support and empathy. Positive praise and talk with adults have the same impact as it does on children. Do it and do it often.

Diplomacy vs. Sarcasm

Early in my career, I used to use sarcasm to elicit a laugh in stressful situations or to relieve my own frustration. It didn’t take long for me to learn this is ineffective as it only incites the audience rather than garner alliances. What does work is diplomacy. It is always better to respond vs. react.

Responding to any given situation means keeping your emotions in control. It means keeping your voice steady and tone neutral, not loud or forceful. Nonverbal language speaks louder than words, so your face should remain passive, and eye contact should be maintained. By speaking with facts and not feelings, adults and students are more likely to resolve confusion or conflict. This is particularly important when accountability is at hand.

When actions are less than desirable, punishment results in resentment, and it limits growth. Through tactful conversations, next steps for improved outcomes can be investigated and growth can occur. Trust is protected and relationships stay intact.

Solid relationships make a positive school and classroom culture possible. In week one of art camp, I had brought my beliefs and values about teaching to the classroom, but I didn’t have the relationship piece.

In week two of art camp, I followed the three steps discussed in this article. I started with simply talking to each student. I tried to find something out about each one of them so that I could follow up with them the next day. Trying to find shared interests in art was a way to bridge what was being taught and personal interests.

I worked one on one, building up the success each student was having in their work and providing support as soon as I saw results going astray. When behaviors presented themselves, I was tactful and left emotion out of the equation. The result was improved student work and better behavior. If you want a positive school culture, then you must start with relationships. It’s imperative.


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