School Culture: It’s in your hands, kids.

“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.

17 thoughts on “School Culture: It’s in your hands, kids.

  1. I found the students I had did not want to work unless I came out with a new angle on how to teach it. For example, I made half the class British and the other half colonist. They had to color a figurine depicting themselves. We then take it to a board and had the figures showing the trip from Concord and Lexington. The colonist hid behind the trees. The British in red coats, white pants and black boots were in the open. Within minutes the students understood the British were being foolish being in the open. I introduced the concept of hubris and the British could not fathom that the colonist would not obey the laws of war. They were hooked what were the rules of war? I thought the idea was good and it seemed to work.


    • Whoa! That’s so much fun! 😀 and then they got into the rules of war? That’s a genius turn – and looks like it brought out that evasive “teachable moment!”


      • Thank you, I have written a lot of my days as a teacher. I also put in some of the ideas I used. If you are a teacher you have my permission to use any of my work. Hope it helps. If you need an idea floated just email me. Sincerely Barry


  2. I completely agree that the school culture has to come from the student body. As you’ve said, every school will have its little issues, and with the school I went to before uni and that my sister still goes to I’m seeing the new head teacher put in place more and more rules and restrictions, not allowing the students decide anything for themselves. During study periods during the day students in the sixth form used to be allowed to go home if they wished and worked better there, or do sport, or use the library and computer rooms. Now they have to sign in to the library to prove they are working. They can’t sit in the common room and work. They can’t sit on the school field and do work or relax during the summer term and exam period. And the more rules and restrictions this head teacher is putting in place, the more the students fight against it, with petitions and purposeful rules breaking.

    If they can’t demonstrate that they can organise themselves, why should they even bother to try?



    • That “why bother trying” attitude is so true, and so hard to overcome once it’s in place. It’s sad that something like this has happened to your sister’s school. When I see situations like this, I wonder if there was something that “ruined” it for everyone, some situation where someone was hurt or damage was done, and now those freedoms are removed across the board. Or it could be that test scores and grades aren’t where they should be and the head teacher thinks this will help bring them up. I don’t agree with these actions, but I always wonder about the other side of the story. Education is a rough business.


  3. I agree that kids will most often behave in the way you show them you expect them to behave. Notice I said “show,” not “tell”. I have directed a number of plays with primarily child casts. I have noticed that because I tell them from day 1 what I expect of them and why AND what they can expect from me, I rarely have major problems. I don’t hover over them; I don’t micromanage every moment they are at rehearsal. I just expect a certain level of behavior and I generally get it. Mutual respect is the key.


    • Good distinction. Too many times people tell kids that they “expect” good behavior, but when then hover and micromanage, sending the clear message that they really expect the kids to mess up and are preparing for the worst. We expect our students to do the right thing, and stand back and let them make their own decisions.


  4. In a few years, I’m going to be a teacher. Unfortunately, the situation you’re talking about is something I will always only be able to dream of. Small high schools don’t really exist here and students come from a variety of primary schools. Their knowledge is never tested by an outside body so an A in one school can very easily be a D in another school. Student’s behaviour isn’t even taken into account during the admission process.

    While I was usually trusted with keys, some teachers were never brave enough to let me in without supervision. I gave additional lessons to fellow students who were bad at chemistry and once I was forced to have my class on a basketball court — they were sitting on the floor, writing on their knees and I used the court as a blackboard. That did make me very angry but now I doubt I would have given the key to myself because it’s my salary that could be used to compensate for any damage.

    As I said before, I am to dream 🙂


  5. At one point you have to understand it’s the student’s lives. They are accountable for their actions. You can punish them, but they don’t care….why should they? They didn’t care enough that they did or didn’t do something that caused the punishment. If they haven’t figured out why they are being punished, why it is important to finish homework, to study for tests, to not skip, and to not ruin property or fight, then the punishment is going to do nothing to change their ways. Students need to hold themselves accountable, it isn’t up to anyone else at this point. My school has honors classes and for the most part there is good culture there, but there isn’t in the other classes. For example art class isn’t separated and once, when we had a sub, people texted openly and cussed at the teacher.(we were supposed to be watching a movie) I am glad you don’t have that problem at your school.


    • Precisely. As long as we can trust students to hold themselves accountable, we’ll continue to see this positive school culture. Unfortunately, we teachers are also held accountable for what students do within our walls. We are responsible for the safety of all our students, for maintaining an environment in which everyone can learn, and for meeting a certain academic standard (high failure rates can put our jobs on the line). Individuals can make decisions that cause problems in all those things. In those cases, punishments are less about changing the behavior and more about protecting other students’ safety and education, as well as our own jobs. That’s why there’s so much risk in placing this level of trust in our students. We’re relinquishing control. But I agree – starting from a place of respect for student decisions and personal accountability is better than assuming that punishments are an effective deterrent. It’s scary, but pretty darn awesome.


  6. I think it’s awesome that you recognize this as a teacher! I’m a college student who graduated from high school two years ago, and I still think about the huge culture shift that happened in the beginning of my senior year of high school. The previous year, my class of 20 or so students was known as the “bad” class–we were disrespectful to our teachers and mean to each other. Lots of drama, you know how it is. The teachers constantly got on to us and lectured us about our behavior, but nothing changed. Then before our senior year a few of the main “instigators” left for public school, leaving us with just fifteen students. Something happened at the beginning of the year: in the first week, our class president suggested that we all arrive at school twenty minutes early to pray together. Almost every day, about seven or eight out of the fifteen students regularly got to school early to share our struggles and difficulties and pray for each other.

    Needless to say, we were a different class after that. We still had our occasional antics, of course, but the entire atmosphere changed. I think the most defining moment for us was on our senior trip, when one of the sort of “fringe” students admitted that she was pregnant. Most of us were Christians who believed that premarital sex was a sin. If that had happened the year before, there would have been tons of gossip and drama, and she probably would have been treated pretty badly. Instead most of us listened to her as she told us her story (while crying), encouraged her, supported her, and defended her to the few students who tried to gossip about her or put her down.

    It was a huge leap to make, and it all came from the students, not the teachers. Respect for authority is important, but ultimately it’s the opinion of their peers that teenagers care about. When the students are the ones setting the standards, it tends to get reached.


    • Thanks for this! What a great example of how just a few individuals can impact the culture of a whole class – first the few instigators who influenced the rest of the class to behave badly, and then when they left, one person stepped up and made a suggestion for a positive change, which again influenced your class for the better. I hope other young people read this and take ownership for their own actions and standards. What an awesome story!


  7. Great post! It was really refreshing to read about the great things going on in your school and classroom – and what a crazy opener where your students got working on their own? Wow.

    You know though, the way I see it, there will be a breaking point sooner or later where something bad will happen, but I think that when it happens, it could be a time for that culture to not fall apart, but to deepen and come really alive. We can’t control what others will do – and I don’t think we should get too uptight about it – but we can control how we respond. How the teaching staff and the rest of the student body responds when someone does something bad to the school could actually make that culture deeper and stronger still.

    Thanks again for sharing 😀


  8. The culture is definitely in the hands of the students, but I think it can vary from class-to-class, as well: I walk by rowdy classes in the hallway every day but then I see some of those same people in my third period AP Computer Science class and it’s almost exactly the way you describe it in your introduction. We get work done and we progress, but every once in a while there’s that lapse where we don’t have anything to do. The teacher doesn’t have to sit us down and give us busy work; we handle ourselves. One day, we were supposed to take a test, but our teacher was sick. A substitute teacher never came and we were left on our own. Our student intern, a junior (though I’m a sophomore, almost all of my classmates are seniors), passed out the tests and I was amazed how no one said a word as we took the whole test and handed it back to the intern, who put it in the teacher’s mailbox in the main office. Our teacher was back the next day and didn’t even question it. She trusted us because we have proven ourselves to be trustworthy. So, though students make the environment, it also depends on what other students are present to truly make the culture what it is.


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