Almost in every facet of education, all K-12 teachers, school leaders, district personnel, and educators, by their positions alone, have expressed a focus on impacting the lives of children. We should all hope that as educators, a positive culture surrounds the students we work with and our classrooms become pillars of high levels of learning. We should create relationships that provide a lasting connection with the students we interact with. We need to make an impact in the lives of students as if we had the power to help shape their futures—I say that because we do.
As a teacher, I had the honor of educating students at the junior high and elementary levels for eleven years. My first experience as a full-time teacher was at the junior high teaching 6th and 8th grade students. My biggest concern was that my passion for teaching had a strong competitor every day: the school’s culture. It was perfectly normal at the time (which years later I discovered was not normal) for teachers to fail their students for not trying hard enough. One teacher had given an ‘F’ to 75% of his students for the semester and that was his ‘normal’—students were not trying hard enough and as the teacher stated, “Those are the grades they deserve.” Our content department also decided that our goal for the year should be that 50% of our students reach proficiency.
My mind was mentally taking note and visually splitting my class in half. “If I focus on half of my students, I can reach the 50%…” Our principal came in and told us 50% was too low, so our department pushed it up another 5%. Fifty-five percent was the new target. This was my ‘normal’ and the school culture that was affecting my teaching for seven years. During my seventh year as a teacher, my vice principal became principal of an elementary school and asked me to go with her. At first, I did not feel like I could teach younger minds, so I said no.
A year later, she said the words that convinced me to go: “Our site needs someone like you. A Latino educator would be perfect for our kids.” A sense of belonging to a bigger cause seemed to connect with my love of teaching and bring a sense of excitement back that I seemed to have lost in my first seven years as an educator.
As an elementary teacher, I noticed the difference in the culture almost immediately. During the first few months, the mindset of reaching 55% of our students was no longer the norm. My secondary world mentality was changing. What was acceptable in one school culture was not in the other. There were a lot more parents on the elementary campus, which meant more daily conversations about student academics and home life. Our grade level discussions involved attaining proficiency for 100% of our students. My mental image of cutting my class in half was out and I needed to make some huge adjustments.
The closest I got to 100% with my 4th graders was 80% proficiency. I felt like I let the school down. For years, I thought about my junior high students as well. I could have created a better learning experience for my students, and I could have raised the bar for myself and possibly convince others around me that we could all do better. I spent my last four years of teaching learning the elementary world before becoming a school administrator for a different district. As a new assistant principal of an elementary school, I also learned that not all elementary cultures are the same. Some may say that everyone should know that, but unless you experience different sites, it is not that easy to understand. My first day on the job as an AP, I walked into the staff room for a meet and greet where the 1980s song “Welcome to the Jungle” from Guns n’ Roses was playing in the background. The school culture was evident from the start and it was one that I needed to understand.
There were very few teachers who had high proficiency scores (97% on grade level benchmarks) just like I would have wanted to have with my students, but there were other teachers who were fine with 35%. Several teacher teams would collaborate because they knew it was important and other grade level teams seemed to meet because it was part of their work contract. I was able to work with teachers who wanted to be a part of a team and others who preferred to isolate themselves. Our student scores were low, and our discipline was high (I counted an average of 234 yearly suspensions—equivalent to 29% of our school). Our parents spoke negatively about the school and not surprisingly, so did some of the staff.
It was evident to me as an administrator, and evident to the students and community, that our school culture needed to change. Before I was promoted to principal of another school, our admin team (the principal and I) started to create change from all angles. Students, teachers, parents, schedules, trainings, etc. Changes from student recess and assemblies to the construction of relationships, all of them with mixed results. Our school culture was getting a makeover, and some were on board and others were not. The impact of change was felt, and the school started to change. The impact was noticeable. Our discipline numbers were lowered (down to 7%), our state scores went up, our staff started to believe, our parents came to meetings, and our students started to show a connection to the school.
Note: By this time, I had almost eighteen years in education. I began to better understand that school cultures are really a connective network of mini cultures. My comprehensive learning and experiences in education over the years was telling me that every person who has a connection to the school contributes to the school culture. A single student contributes to the student culture and in turn adds to the school culture. A teacher contributes to the staff culture and in turn impacts the school culture. A parent contributes to the community culture and in turn affects the school culture. Every person, every stakeholder, who is somehow connected to the school contributes to the overarching school culture. This is how all the mini cultures can become one connective school culture. We all know that every school has one, but we should also be aware that a school culture could be extremely positive or immensely negative to student learning.
I then started to focus on my new school. Not just any school, but the first dual language school in our district. It was a brand-new school and I was excited about this new position. I had the benefit of hiring most of my staff. With eight new teachers, we were able to set high expectations for ourselves, for our school, and for our students. The vision was laid out and I immediately gave everyone the position of a school leader. We focused on quite a few areas with a goal of making the school a great school. Areas like student learning, instructional approaches, dual language principles, second language acquisition, and so on. The most critical component for me was the school’s culture. If we got it right, the impact would be great for everyone. If we got it wrong, I would consider myself a failure at school leadership—so I didn’t want to fail.
I went to work on this; from the technical practices to the theory and research behind school cultures. I started my doctorate program with an expectation that I would learn more about internal school systems, dual language education, and school leadership. On site, I focused on creating partnerships throughout the school where no one could say they were alone. I invited the community to visit our school, provide input, and to attend our meetings. We encouraged our students to have a growth mindset and to focus on becoming biliterate and bilingual. Students understood that we were all there to learn and understood that everyone’s own culture was valued. The process was worth it, and the impact was rewarding. Fast forward six years and eighteen additional teachers later, our school is one of the most talked about schools in the area. With almost seven hundred students, our student attendance has been the highest in the district for over four years. Our teachers love to come to work and create that spark for our students. Our parents are welcomed from the moment they walk through our doors. Our student discipline and suspensions: a tenth of one percent. The comments we hear from guests and staff continue to be always positive. Our local university sends us their student-teachers in packs because it is a “model” school. Parents on Facebook rate us a five-star school, and when there is a parent concern, it is immediately remedied.
You must wonder, if schools focused on their culture, would they be a different school than they are now? What if school leaders also understood what a connective school culture looked like, would that help any part of their student outcomes? Their attendance? Their community outreach? Their staff commitment to their students? From what I have learned, if you focus on your school culture first, not only will you feel the connective impact, but more importantly, your students will be glad you did.