“Quiet game, everybody!” The speaker is one of the more vocal guys in the class, the one who usually riles up the others, but they have work to do today. The quiet game was his favorite strategy to get himself to focus. “Five minutes. One, two, three, go.”
And the room silenced.
The absolute silence only lasted for a few seconds, but the spirit of the game continued, with comments kept to quiet murmuring mostly on topic with their work. They’re all seniors, this class full of students taking college writing. They meet in my room, but I’m not teaching the class. My predecessor still teaches it, giving them their assignments online and occasionally coming in to meet with them in person. On a regular day, third period is a glorified study hall for them (and me). It’s a chance for them to meet together and focus on the work for this class, but they’re free to work on whatever they want. If they have a more pressing assignment in another class, they work on that instead and save the college writing work for another time. And there are days when they don’t have much to do at all, so they tend to converse and browse the internet instead. I’m pretty “hands off” with this group. I don’t even have a syllabus for the class, much less access to their individual assignments. If they choose to focus on the course work, good for them. If they choose to do something else, that’s up to their discretion.
I enjoy being in the room with them, though. They self-monitor, keeping themselves well-behaved and on task. On their more goofy days, I laugh at their antics and occasionally jump in a few conversations, but mostly I’m just a fly on the wall staring at my computer screen or my grading with one ear on their conversations. They know I listen. Sometimes I’ll look up and raise an eyebrow at a comment, because I like them to know that I’m aware, but most of the time I’m just a benevolent adult presence in the room.
Today’s a quiet day. They have a college writing assignment due tonight, so almost all of them are focused on that. The vocal guy started the quiet game twenty-five minutes ago, and the quiet tone still hasn’t broken completely. It’s starting to break a little, conversations building here and there, but those just seem to be moments of mental breaks before they settle back into their work.
* * * *
I recently read a blog post referencing a private school that liked to talk a big game about building a positive “school culture.” I worked for a lot of schools that claimed school culture as a major focus, but there seemed to be a disconnect between the desire and the ability to actually create the culture they wanted. School administrators saying they want students who are respectful, keep each other in line, and encouraging of one another sounds great, but that doesn’t do much to make kids actually act that way. Behavioral enforcement policies can only go so far. The real school culture has to come from the students themselves.
But how often do we really give them that chance?
It’s a hard bridge to cross. I acknowledge that. This school is the first time I’ve really seen the culture that administrators like to proclaim – and the funny thing is, while we all know it, we don’t have any major slogans or campaigns tied to it. We just live it. I wrote last time about the naiveté of my students, but I will say this for them – as far as pockets of the world go, this is a good place to be. Teachers here trust the students. No one is telling these seniors to stay on track with their college writing class; they’re just doing it. Students are in charge of chapel music and setting up chapel chairs every week, and it always happens as it’s supposed to. There’s a 10th grade boy trusted with the keys and the school’s technical systems on a daily basis. There isn’t a common procedure for sending “problem” students to the office because I rarely encounter a behavioral problem that I can’t handle in class. We rarely question the students we see in the halls during class time. We trust them.
Do the kids take advantage of our trust? Sure, a bit. I did the same thing as a teen. I remember asking to go “work on the prop closet” when what I really wanted was an escape from the world of high school drama. I wasn’t always working and organizing in that closet. Sometimes I was venting to a friend, processing the world, and handling teenage life. And sometimes when I left my TA period to go “do homework” in study hall, I really just wanted to hang out with my friends. Was I taking advantage of my teachers’ trust in me? Maybe, but not in a destructive way. I still kept up with my work, both academic and extracurricular (I was valedictorian, after all). I completed the tasks asked of me. I upheld a positive school environment. I think the same thing is going on with the students at this school.
Sometimes they may find a way to escape our classes. Sometimes they may linger in the halls longer than they need to, and if we catch them, we reprimand them. But in general, they don’t behave in a way that requires us to breathe down their necks and act as though we’re just waiting for them to break the rules so we can punish them. While we can’t always trust them to turn in their homework on time, pay attention in class, or put away their phones when we ask, we are constantly, daily, trusting them to uphold a school culture of respect. That’s huge. I doubt they fully grasp the significance of it.
I have a few theories about why it “works” here when I’ve seen so many other places fall short. I can’t ignore the fact that most of these kids come from good homes, so the behavior they learn at home naturally carries over to the school setting. Also, this is a young school, only 15 years old, and several of the founding teachers are still around. They’ve poured their lives into building this school, and from day one, there’s always been a strong, intentional focus on not simply teaching students, but also building relationships with them. We’re not just teaching subjects; we’re shaping lives. That naturally reflects in how students interact with us and each other. Finally, when students do step out of line, when they’re disrespectful, dishonest, or hurtful, we deal with it. We don’t let it slide. Nip the small stuff in the bud, and it doesn’t have a chance to escalate to big stuff.
But in the end, the school culture is in the hands of our teenagers. During a recent open house, a panel of students were put on stage to answer questions from parents of prospective students. One parent asked tough questions about the temptations of drugs and sexual pressures. I wasn’t there, but my coworkers couldn’t stop talking about it the next day. Though clearly a little awkwardness ensued, the students on the panel floored everyone with their answers. They honestly discussed the nature of a small school (it’s hard to keep secrets), but said that as a student body, those issues aren’t huge problems. “That’s just not something we do here. We keep each other in check,” they said, frankly, openly.
It frightens me to think that this culture could break so easily. All it would take is a few students causing damage, hurting another student or destroying school property, betraying our trust. If that happens, we’ll be held liable and we’ll lose a little bit of the culture that makes this place so special. We’ll have to start behaving as though we don’t trust our students, and in return, they’ll start behaving as though we shouldn’t trust them.
Even saying that makes me sound jaded, like it’s just a matter of time before something bad happens, but maybe it isn’t. The fact that this culture exists now proves that it’s possible, that our teenagers are capable of maintaining it. Hopefully the culture that was instilled from the school’s very beginning will continue to build and grow as students take on more and more ownership and responsibility, influencing each other for good. If we continue expect them to do right, they probably will. But, man, that takes a lot of trust.