As a child in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I attended a music school every afternoon, after what I referred to as “regular” school.
I found regular school strenuous beginning in first grade. I struggled through learning English and multiplication, and I constantly felt defeated. I looked forward to running to my music school, where my piano teacher was there just for me. She was able to joke with me but still be serious about practice. We had joyful annual holiday parties full of music, games, and homemade food, and when I returned to one of these gatherings as an adult, I felt the familiar warmth I had known in my childhood.
Wouldn’t it be ideal for all children to feel that strongly about their day-to-day life at school? How do you ensure that in addition to learning English and multiplication, your child’s classroom is full of the joy and encouragement that motivates her to become a lifelong learner?
This is where school culture, or the environment that a school creates for its learners, comes in. There are factors that come together to create a supportive atmosphere where your child can thrive, and you should be on the lookout for them during your school search.
Be prepared to use all of your senses. What do you hear around you? What do you see in the hallways and classrooms? What do you feel as you walk through the school?
Here are some signs and strategies you can use to identify a positive school culture.
1. Engaging Academic Learning
Lessons that are hands-on, child-centered, and active encourage students to feel excited about going to school. You can spot a school that supports this kind of learning by observing the classroom. If desks are arranged in groups instead of rows, this indicates that students often work collaboratively. In other hands-on learning environments, such as Montessori classrooms, students take turns working at tables and on the carpet, so be on the lookout for this kind of setup as well.
To help determine whether learning occurs in small groups or for the whole class, find out the class size and the student-to-teacher ratio. The smaller both of these are, the more individualized attention your child will receive. Students will also receive more support in an environment that uses differentiated learning than in one that standardizes lessons for all students.
Look out for other clues that indicate children are engaged and learning actively. Schools that are child-centered will often display lots of exceptional student work, inside and outside the classroom. A nurturing classroom will be one that showcases children’s interests and honors their differences. What kind of visuals are hanging up in the classroom? Can you find a birthday chart, a calendar, and schedule for the day? Particularly for younger students, engaging learning means that there will be plenty of concrete materials to use, especially for math and science learning. If you see rooms with blocks, games, books, and other such materials, it means lessons are being brought to life with these tools.
As the role of technology in learning continues to grow, schools may invest in it as a way to make learning engaging. Notice if there is a SmartBoard, computers, tablets, or other technology in the classroom. To support academic growth that is relevant and meaningful to all students, schools may use a variety of options, including online learning, game-based learning, and e-readers.
2. Social-Emotional Learning and Inclusivity
Students often feel more comfortable in a classroom that actively focuses on the importance of cultivating social and emotional skills and is inclusive of everyone, regardless of learning differences.
The tone of the classroom is a good indicator of this. Pay attention to the level and tone of voice the teacher uses when talking to students. Are conversations polite and respectful? Is there one speaker at a time?
There are also several types of social-emotional programs that schools can use, including Responsive Classroom and Second Step. Responsive Classroom works to improve school climate and student outcomes. Through interactive activities, children learn to be responsible and empathetic. For instance, the model uses Morning Meeting to establish trust and respect within the classroom and school community. During a Morning Meeting, students may share something about themselves, go over the day’s plans, and hear announcements.
With Second Step, children directly learn social and emotional skills, such as self-control, empathy, and assertive behavior. This is done through role-playing, songs, and follow-up activities. For example, children may act out scenarios to show different ways of responding to stressful situations at school. A song to accompany the lesson (which I continue to hum months after first learning it) then reminds students to “stop, name your feelings, and calm down.” If your school does not use a specific social-emotional curriculum, be sure to ask what is done to support children in this regard.
You should also learn what is done to accommodate children with special needs. Are there collaborative team teaching classes (CTTs), in which general and special education students learn together? Unless the school is specifically designated for special education — or alternatively does not provide special education — a healthy school will have 12:1:1 ratio (12 students, one full-time teacher, and one teaching assistant) as well as CTT options for students.
3. Positive Discipline
Another important indicator of a positive school culture is how children are disciplined. Are missteps seen as opportunities to learn? How are healthy behaviors supported, and how are detrimental behaviors discouraged?
A helpful approach is one that uses positive discipline. Its cornerstone is kind, trusting, and respectful relationships among students and teachers. Consequences for misdemeanors are relevant and fitting, and the focus is on children’s strengths. Students work together to support each other and celebrate when they do well. For instance, students may work toward a choice activity by filling a jar up with jewels. Each jewel is placed in the jar after a student or teacher acknowledges someone else in the community who has done something kind or inspirational. In this way, the focus goes toward promoting healthy habits as opposed to preventing problems, and children are given productive opportunities to grow.
Positive discipline is often used in Montessori classrooms and can incorporate a Peace Curriculum as well as student-led Class Meetings. The Peace Curriculum promotes mindfulness, kindness, and respect toward all living things, and its mantra is, “Respect of self, respect of others; respect of the environment.” Regularly-scheduled Class Meetings provide a safe and organic way for students to resolve interpersonal problems collaboratively. During a student-led Class Meeting, students brainstorm solutions to a problem within the classroom community. In the following meeting, students decide whether their chosen solution is working, or whether they need to try something else, and the cycle thus continues. Rather than presenting students with quick solutions or punishments, the Class Meeting model encourages creative and collaborative problem-solving.
An important question to ask an administrator or teacher on your tour of a school is, “What happens if my child misbehaves?” Find out what kind of behavior management system the school uses so you can decide whether it is right for you and your family.
4. Teacher Turnover
Seeing how teachers react to the school’s internal system is a great indicator of what kind of environment is encouraged. Do not consider it a coincidence if you find out that a great many teachers are jumping ship. They may be leaving for many reasons, including being overworked or not having effective communication with administrators. For instance, teachers anonymously interviewed by the Atlantic reported many different reasons for leaving, including poor work-life balance, stress, lack of respect or support, and low pay.
Meanwhile, research shows that “teacher turnover has a significant and negative effect on student achievement in both math and ELA.” Having many new hires also means that students do not get time to develop strong and healthy relationships with their teachers over time. The culture of a school as a whole certainly depends on its people, and, as the paper cited above states, “Perhaps turnover results in loss of institutional knowledge among faculty that is critical for supporting all student learning.”
To get a feel for turnover at a school, talk to the teachers. Ask how long a teacher has been at the school you are touring. You should also ask whether the teacher has breaks in her day, and if she has time to prepare lessons at school. Schools where teachers are required to stay after class to prepare lessons, especially those with extended days, require teachers to work an average 12 hours each day. Exhaustion and loss of personal time cause burnout and lead to a new round of teachers every two to three years.
5. Zero-Tolerance Policies
According to the National Charter School Resource Center, brand-name charters (such as KIPP, Success Academy Charter Schools, and Uncommon Schools in NYC) use a franchise model to streamline their brands. Their students achieve high scores on standardized tests, despite a high rate of teacher turnover. From experience in this kind of community, a shared culture is forged through commitment to a set of values and “zero-tolerance” behavior policies prescribed by the organization.
In a classroom, you may see physical incentives displayed on shelves. These are awarded to children who score the highest on daily full-length practice tests. To track student achievement, color charts could be used. A behavior chart could be displayed on a wall, as well.
While this kind of management system has traditionally led to high scores, it can sometimes sacrifice individuality and creativity. If you think, however, that your child may be more successful in a relatively rigid environment, this may be a good option for your family.
In a healthy school community, everyone is supported. Communication is respectful, and relationships are genuine among parents, children, teachers, and staff. Rules and values are decided by the strengths and needs of each community. Everyone’s culture is respected, and differences are celebrated. It is within this kind of school community that everyone can thrive.
Bennett, J. (2008) Brand-Name Charters. Education Next. Retrieved on August 14, 2015 from Education Next
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens. Random House LLC.
Child-Centered Education. (2014, November 23). Central Park School for Children. Retrieved on August 13, 2015.
Magliaro, E. (2013). Should Teacher the High Teacher Turnover Rate in Charter Schools be a Cause for Concern? Jonathan Turley. Retrieved on August 15, 2015 from Jonathan Turley
Peace Curriculum. (2015) Elizabeth Ann Clune Montessori School of Ithaca. Retrieved on August 15, 2015, from Elizabeth Ann clune Montessori School of Ithaca
Powell, M. (2013, December 24). 5 Ways to Make Your Classroom Student-Centered. Education Week. Retrieved on August 13, 2015.
Riggs, L. (2013, October 18). Why Do Teachers Quit? And Why Do They Stay? The Atlantic. Retrieved on August 14, 2015 from The Atlantic
Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (© 2011). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. NBER Working Paper No. 17176 (June 2011), JEL No. I21., (pp. 1-19).
Second Step. (2015). Committee for Children. Retrieved on August 15, 2015, from Committee for Childen