Recently, I spent a day conducting school culture walkthroughs in one of Kickboard’s partner districts. At each school, I met with school-level administrators. We then split into groups to walk around for 30-60 minutes, looking for evidence of positive school culture. Based on what we saw, we each assigned a rating for specific identifiers according to a rubric that district level leaders had created.
One of the indicators on the rubric asked for evidence of students being happy and specifically included “staff and students are smiling” as a criterion. I had begun to notice that the scores I assigned for this happiness indicator tended to be lower overall than the scores the principals and other leaders determined.
At one particular school, I gave a score of 1 on this happiness indicator because I had not seen any students or staff smiling during our walk. Everyone else had assigned the school a 3 or 4 rating for this indicator. One of the leaders asked me why I gave such a low score.
“I didn’t see anyone in the building actually smile or laugh,” I answered.
“Yeah, but they were all so well behaved,” she responded.
It was the biggest “aha! moment” I’d had in awhile. As I have been observing schools this year, and watching the way leaders interpret and evaluate school climate and culture, I can’t help but ask the question: When did “compliance” become synonymous with “joy”?
I understand striving for strict compliance. It’s much easier to get students to be silent than it is to get them to adhere to a quiet level of talking. It’s simpler to hold students accountable to a straight line than it is to manage students freely walking on one side of the hallway. Organization ensures safety. And if you work in a school in which students are directly defying teachers as well as possibly endangering others around them, compliance is a huge win. If students or teachers are in danger at a school, safety is priority #1—no question.
Once students and staff are emotionally and physically safe, the goal must shift to creating a learning environment where they are happy and engaged. A joyful school can lead to higher academic performance, more committed teachers, less bullying and fighting, and more involved parents.
In a world in which schools are fighting to retain good teachers, making sure staff are happy and engaged is really important! How long can we expect teachers to stay at jobs that they do not enjoy? In a climate where nearly half of all teachers leave their jobs or transfer over the first five years of their careers, creating spaces that support staff and their well-being is crucial. Without an overall culture of support, collaboration, and community among teachers and school leaders in the building, teachers can struggle to feel ownership or commitment to their work and thus are unlikely to foster joy within their classrooms. Joyless classrooms can easily become teacherless classrooms.
And how long will parents leave their students enrolled in a school where they may learn but are unhappy and disengaged? In fact, one of the school leaders I work with was recognized for increasing student enrollment this year. He attributes that achievement to the school’s increasingly positive climate in which students are celebrated for their growth and success, visitors are greeted with a smile and welcomed into the school community, and parents and teachers feel heard and respected.
It should be noted that joy doesn’t necessarily have to equal fun, and it certainly doesn’t mean the absence of academic rigor. Joy comes when students and teachers feel pride, success, or excitement over what they are doing.
As research shows, these feelings of engagement and connectedness often lead to smaller achievement gaps between students in varying socio-economic groups. The Review of Educational Research published a study last year in which they observed trends in schools from 2000 to 2015. Far and away, they found a direct relationship between positive school culture and academic achievement. The benefits of actively working to create a school of joyful students and staff can be manifold.
(Make sure you provide a safe space for this.)
Then, after reviewing the feedback and information you’ve gathered with your staff, collaborate on systems to put in place and take action to increase joy! Establish schoolwide practices for celebrations of positive behavior and achievements for students and staff. Add culture indicators to your walkthrough rubric and classroom observation tools and have staff use them during peer culture walks. Revisit your teacher support systems.
Prioritizing these efforts on the same level as reducing suspensions and expulsions will begin to dramatically shift your school’s culture. Putting in the work so that students and staff are smiling and not just complying will lead to joyful schools where students and staff thrive.