Creating a Positive School Culture

Imagine a small high school with a culture of genuine inquiry, where relationships are central, and learning is more important than grades. This school follows democratic principles, and adolescents are encouraged to be leaders of their own learning. Here students are challenged to consider not just what they think but how they think. And here, service to school and community is a standard expectation. Teachers here have more autonomy, more responsibility, and more investment in the school’s success. Leadership is shared by all. This school intends to be an authentic learning community.

While small in number, schools that sound similar to this do exist. Some are private, some are charter, and some are the legacy of the progressive movement in public education. These schools intentionally promote a positive school culture with the goal of empowering students to develop a sense of personal and social responsibility that will guide their future decisions as democratic citizens. These small schools often promote “habits of mind” that are critical to student growth.

As an English teacher, I started seriously thinking about these “habits” in terms of reading and how students approach complex texts. For example, Sheridan Blau identifies the thinking habits required for what he calls “performative literacy” as:

  1. a capacity for sustained focused attention
  2. willingness to suspend closure
  3. willingness to take risks
  4. tolerance for failure
  5. tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  6. intellectual generosity and fallibility; willingness to change one’s mind; and appreciation of alternative perspectives

What is evident is that the same skills that can make one a more disciplined reader can make one a more disciplined student, as well as a more thoughtful member of a community. Paul Tough explores similar ideas in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2013). “Character” may be hard to define, but it seems clear that attitudes, beliefs, and values shape students’ performance in significant ways. Most teachers intuitively understand that “attitude” impacts learning. After all, which of us hasn’t taught the “smart” student who easily gives up when things get hard? Or the student who is skill weak but perseveres despite struggle and mediocre grades? And many of us were not shocked when a recent study revealed that high school grades (often correlated with effort as much as mastery) were a better predictor of success in college than SAT scores.

But how can an entire school foster empowering habits of mind and a reverence for community? And in the age of accountability? It seems an intentional approach is needed, where all stakeholders are asked to rethink the purpose of school and the possibility of a more enriching education. It is an understatement to say this is no easy task. But one place to start might be with the work of Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth of the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania, as well as ideas about Mindset developed by Stanford’s Carol Dweck. Seligman defines positive education as “education for both traditional skills and for happiness” and argues that skills for happiness like “resilience, positive emotion, engagement and meaning” can be taught in schools.

In terms of leadership, I am interested in how to create and sustain a positive school culture with an emphasis on strengthening character. This idea fits well with new leadership models, especially those of Thomas Sergiovanni who in Rethinking Leadership (2007), emphasizes moral leadership, driven by shared values, relationships, and a desire for education to be meaningful. For me this is exciting, especially as there are echoes of a particular kind of education espoused by progressive education pioneer John Dewey who wrote in The School and Society (1915), that every school should become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”


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