Constantly Examining

I wrote previously that culture is about knowing who you are and about knowing your people, and about how you can’t know your people unless you know yourself and where you’re coming from and your emotions and where your head and heart are at.

The next step, after making sure you have those pieces in place to the best of your ability, is to align your core beliefs with your daily actions so that people who work in the organization understand that this is who we are, and this is just what we do here. Everybody in the establishment needs to understand that that is what the culture is here.

If people can’t align the core values that have been established to their personal and outward daily actions, then they don’t belong here.  It’s that simple.

And then again, it’s not simple at all, is it.  It’s not as simple as saying, “please align with these core values and beliefs.”  You’ve seen it all too often – people sit in a room with the best of intentions, they work together to hammer out what everyone believes will be the mission and vision of the school, and then the year gets going, people get lost in their work behind closed doors, things take place, honest, open discussion doesn’t happen as often as it should (always to the detriment of the group… and the students), and all of a sudden it’s the end of the year and the organization’s Core Beliefs, or those finely tuned Mission and Vision statements, all of which everyone worked so hard on and were so excited about, are a distant memory.

Roland Barth wrote, “Show me a school whose inhabitants constantly examine the school’s culture and work to transform it into one hospitable to sustained human learning, and I’ll show you students who graduate with both the capacity and the heart for lifelong learning.”


The notion presented here by Barth ties in directly with my point – unless a school and its inhabitants are constantly examining shared beliefs, core values, mission statements, big picture visions and the like, the direction of the organization can tend to get lost, the path muddied.  It is worth remembering that if it is worth saying, if it is worth bringing people together and spending any substantial amount of time on a thing, then it is worth repeating.  Multiple times.

This quote by Barth is one I had come across many years ago, probably during that 1st principalship I held at Murphy Elementary School.  Like the discussion I had with the Mayor over lunch before the start of that year, this idea has stuck with me through the years, and done a lot to help in the formulation of my thoughts around schools and teaching and learning and students and communities.  I ended up staying at that elementary school for 8 years before receiving the internal call to move on.  During those years, the idea from Barth that one needed to constantly examinethe school’s culture stuck in my head like no other idea ever has.

For 8 years, we examined the school culture.
For 8 years, we talked about and discussed school culture.
What it looked like in everyday action,
What it sounded like in classrooms and in hallways, in the cafeteria and on the playground,
What it felt like to outsiders who came into our building, and
What it meant if something wasn’t working how we wanted it to work.

These were not easy conversations, some of these.  We didn’t like to admit when we had it wrong.  We didn’t like how it felt to discuss with people when they weren’t living up to the expectations that we had so painstakingly and lovingly announced publicly.  We didn’t like the feeling of starting over constantly.  What we discovered throughout this process, however, was that we weren’t wasting our time having fruitless conversations around test scores and academic initiatives.  Were these important?  Of course they were.  We knew that, and they were in place.  They had a purpose.  They are part of life in the schoolhouse.  But they were taking care of themselves.

Because we engrossed ourselves in conversations around Culture and how to constantly “Do Culture” better, everything else took care of itself.  After 8 years, we were the only elementary building in the district to be meeting and exceeding in all areas of AYP (remember this??).  And the only thing we changed was the Culture of the building.  It was the only thing that mattered.

The Most Soul- and Mind-Inspiring Places

“Schools should be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be.”
I saw this quote somewhere and wrote it down in a safe place.  So safe that I just ran across it again years later.  A quick Google search did not immediately reveal the source of the quote, so for now it remains anonymous.  I know it is from some book I’ve read, and I’m so very thankful that I ran across it again.  So let’s look at this a little bit and try to understand what it means to be the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring place.

I write from my current vantage point, which is High School Principal, but my thoughts can always be altered to come from the elementary or middle school levels as well.  I have had stints as principal at all three levels, and so my thoughts sometimes blend and always begin with students first.  

I wonder what would happen if our meetings with staff and faculty began with this question: “What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?”  What kinds of responses would we get?  I bet they would look like they had been ripped from the Anytown USA School District Mission page.  You would see things like: Ensuring that our students are lifelong learners, and Providing all students with a challenging curriculum and Helping students become productive citizens.  And these responses are just fine.  There is nothing wrong with these answers, and no one would say we don’t want those qualities in our own children.

But what does that look like?
How is our school the richest?
How is our school the most soul-inspiring?
How is our school the most mind-inspiring?
How do we know?
Where is our proof?

When I can walk into a high school classroom and find students coloring a map of the world… is that my proof?
When I walk into a high school classroom and see kids frantically scribbling notes from a lecture… is that my proof?
When I walk into a high school classroom and notice kids with their heads down at the back of the room… is that my proof?
When I walk into a classroom that is being subbed by a guest teacher and kids are mindlessly watching a movie… is that my proof?

Certainly there are, without question, MANY classrooms that look and feel exactly the opposite from my examples above.  I can go out on any given day and do random walkthroughs and find examples of stellar teaching and learning that is rich and absolutely soul- and mind-inspiring.  Make no mistake.  What I am wondering is, “what about the rest?”  What about the rest of the kids, the rest of the classes kids are sitting in, perhaps bored, or completing mindless tasks, or… just not learning.

One could easily say well, yes, but let’s make sure we are putting blame where blame is due.  Let’s make sure we are properly holding kids accountable.  After all, it can’t simply be the quality of the teaching, or the content of a lesson, that is causing kids to be bored and/or “not learn,” can it?

Really.  Can it?

I would urge you to think about the typical high school student’s day.  Look at the typical high school student’s eight-period schedule with a lunch installed in the middle of the day, a study hall if she’s lucky, and the rest of the day taken up by back-to-back classes of 45 minutes each, with bells interrupting each period.  If she is a high-level student, she is probably taking Honors and/or Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which even compounds the issue further.

That one study hall is probably being used to watch Netflix in an attempt to de-stress from the day, hang out with friends, or maybe catch up on some homework that didn’t quite get finished.  The issue with a straight, back-to-back eight-period day is that the learning which might be taking place cannot even begin to compare, say, to the learning that takes place out of school – the things I really want to be learning.  I know for myself, that when I’m learning something and I’m really deep into it, I am not going to stop and switch gears after 45 minutes.

I know I brought up a sticky point, here.  I implied that the only time someone ever really learns anything is outside of school.  But that is only one half of the story.  I have learned many great things during my time in school; granted, they were only cursory glimpses into things (like Greek Mythology or 20th Century English Literature or Creative Writing), and I am highly thankful and may not have ever learned of this content had I not attended these classes.  But where did I really, deeply learn about this subject matter?  Certainly not during a 45 minute class period, where just when I was starting to get into it, the bell rings and I’ve got to switch gears and try to pay attention in algebra.  I hate algebra.  I’m no good at algebra.

There is another point that needs some clarification here, which my loathing of algebra calls to mind: the power of the teacher.  There can be no replacement for a highly energetic, passionate, caring, patient teacher.  Even though I hated algebra; despite my intense anxiety and sudden stomach aches an hour before I had to be in that algebra class, my high school algebra teacher was caring and she was patient and she clearly LOVED the content, and THAT made all the difference in the world for me.  To this day I don’t love algebra, but I am somewhat good at it, and I never fell asleep in her class because I didn’t want to disappoint or offend her.

Still, our current system is not working for everyone.
Something needs to be done.  For the sake of everyone.

Where do we start?  I would say that a good place would be with the question:

What are we doing to ensure that our schools are the richest and most soul- and mind-inspiring places they can be?

Through a culmination of life events, on-time choices and a few perchance happenings in my life, I have found myself wanting to be the most successful in the world at what I do.

And it is not really even a want.
It is a need,
It is a burning desire.  
And I know how this sounds. I know this sounds gluttonous, perhaps, or even a little over the top and unnecessary and a little like perfectionist theory when we are usually telling kids to stop trying to be perfect and that no one is perfect – just be the best version of you.
But I would tell you that this is wrong.  
Think about it.  If you wake up in the morning and you roll out of bed, ready to get after it, and you are excited about the prospect of getting after it – whatever “it” is for you – it’s going to be a good day for someone.

It’s going to be a good day.
For someone (besides yourself).

Because if you are rolling out of bed ready to hustle, ready to grind and you are actually excited about it, that will probably be good for you and will lead to your own feelings of goodness about yourself and being motivated and anxious to see what the day brings.

But it is probably even better – this burning desire for perfection – for the recipient.
I’m sure of it.

If you don’t believe me, consider the students and colleagues of the ever-exuberant classroom teacher.

The teacher who gets out of bed at 5:00 so he can get to school by 6:00,
There with the morning milk delivery.
The same teacher who is waiting at the door for his students when they arrive –
Each and every morning,
The one who greets each one of them by name and with some type of silly handshake,
Or perhaps with a quick check-in because he knows something was going on the night before.

He is the one who comes to each faculty meeting with a smile on his face,
The one who sits up in the front,
Even though some of his closest colleagues may be sitting toward the back.
The teacher who asks questions and tries to get something out of the meeting,
Even though there really isn’t much content relevant to his particular duties.
It’s mostly administrivia and stuff that could have been put in an email.

Think about this particular teacher and the impact he is going to have on each person he comes into contact with every day.
Think about his students every morning,
and how his attitude and optimism make an indelible impression on each and every one of them.
He has the power to take a bad day and make it manageable for receptive young adults.
Some may even look forward to seeing him each day because they know
It’s the only time that day they will receive any kind of warmth from anyone.

And think about his colleagues.
The ones who aren’t thrilled to be at work that day (probably because they are viewing it as work).
The ones who sit at the back of the faculty meeting and
grade papers
or chat
or surf the internet
instead of being attentive and showing respect to the presenter.
The unsaid influence he has on these fellow teachers, the impact his smile and that pat on the back has, will go a long way toward their overall attitude and mood.
They may not even realize it at the time…

I had a student come up to me last week.  I was standing in the hallway at the end of the day, talking to a group of students before they departed for the weekend.  If I remember correctly, one of them was crying over her worry at not being able to afford the college she wanted to attend.  She’s a junior, mind you, but that’s a story for another post.

This student came up to join our group after he retrieved his belongings out of his locker.  As we were preparing to go our separate ways, he turned and said, “I want to thank you.  Without even knowing you did it, you helped me have a great day by what you said to me in the hallway earlier today.”
“Well, you’re welcome.  I’m glad I could help!” I offered up, with a smile and a fist bump.
He walked out the door, clearly off to have a great weekend.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what I said to him.
I remember having a brief conversation with him, but couldn’t tell you which part of it was the catalyst for his great day.

But that really doesn’t matter.
What matters is how he felt after speaking to me, no matter how brief our chat.
What really matters is that we, as human beings, don’t leave anyone’s feelings to chance.
What really, really matters is that we wake up every day wanting to be the best, wanting to be number one, and that we have a burning desire, an inner drive, to be the most successful in the world.

Someone is on the other end of your desire.  While you are busy trying to be the best, someone is the unknowing recipient of all that greatness… greatness disguised as kindness, warmth, caring, hope, optimism.  How great you want to be matters.  It matters a lot.