I was finishing up a whirlwind site-visit at a school last week, trying to collect my thoughts. It had been a ping-pong kind of a day, bouncing to several different classrooms, meetings with teachers, tours with students, a quick look at a school. In the short time I had between exiting the school doors and catching my plane I was trying to piece together why the student-staff culture was so exceptional at the school.

Student and staff and student-staff culture and its tending-to has been drifting to the forefront of my mind lately as the supreme thing that a school ought to work on (to be fair though, other things often drift to the forefront from time to time, so take it with a grain of salt). And I was struck by the culture of the school. Not because there was a lot of “rah-rah” stuff going on. There wasn’t a pep rally or a celebration ceremony or anything. Shoot, I didn’t even host a common practice of assembling a student focus group to get their perspective. The culture – student to student, student to staff, staff to student and staff to staff – was just professional and kind.

Going through my notes from classroom observations and conversations I had with teachers, even old notes from phone calls I had with the principal and other staff, I was trying to put my finger on just what it was that led to that series pleasurable interactions I had and witnessed in the previous eight hours.

Maybe it was the student focus group the teachers had just hosted in which they were able to put in practice some of the things that came up. That could be it.

Or, perhaps it was their practice of including students on staff meetings: yes, afternoon staff meetings! That’s remarkable! Surely that’s what it was.

But wait, maybe it was because they had their students sit in on the hiring of a new front desk attendent. That’s a pretty unique thing! Maybe that’s what I should tell the other schools I support to do to build school culture.

One teacher had a wall of celebrations of students by students. Sticky after sticky was placed around a periodic table and the words “We celebrate ~periodically!~ (this was a Chemistry class). Things like that tend to build a positive culture, no?


You know what though? Despite being a small school (about 400 high school students, 9-12) they had a “book nook” / library. When a couple of students were giving me a tour, they showed me the Book Nook. It is unattended four days out of the week, but operates as a library and study area for students that need it. It is unlocked and had a sign in/sign out and book checkout sheet. Students can come and go as they please. Man, that shows the kind of trust in students we want, so that’s probably it, right?

Maybe it was because the school didn’t have bells to signal the start and end of class. That tends to engender trust and professionalism.

Then it dawns on me: none of these things produce exceptional school culture. All of these things produce exceptional school culture. It’s all of these things that are producing the culture that I just experienced, and certainly more practices that I didn’t witness.

Attending to student and staff culture requires the kitchen-sink treatment. No one practice is going to be sufficient. Three consistent practices probably isn’t enough.

In fact, in isolation, many of these practices would probably be inert, if not deleterious, to student-staff culture. “Trust cards” is a great example of a fine practice that is useless if it’s the only means of establishing trust and mutual respect: “You can use the bathroom when you want but if you’re not in your seat by the time the tardy bell rings you get points taken away.”

I guess that’s what makes it so difficult to treat. If you – as I have often communicated! – host a student panel or focus group, that’s lovely, but it alone will not change the culture. “Trust cards” won’t change the culture. Including students on the hiring process won’t change the culture. Shadowing a student for a day won’t change the culture. But maybe all of those things together – and even more things – will. If you’re looking to improve the culture at a school, you can start with a few changed practices, but to expect significant results, consider a long-term, sustained kitchen-sink approach.


6 thoughts on “Culture and the kitchen sink

  1. Trust is the highest form of human motivation. – Stephen Covey
    Kudos to that school and thanks for sharing. Maybe schools could benefit from a true series of true opportunities to trust.

  2. These are great questions!. It seems like the school is very responsive. If there is something that needs to be done, they will certainly know about. If kids need a place to study, they can just go to the nook, if they want to say something nice about a student they can just make a post on the wall. With students in all meetings they will have a pulse on the school, and I’m sure issues are constantly coming up. They must be flexible, and constantly responding to these issues as if they are always seeking for another kitchen sink to throw at this issue of school culture. Thanks for this post!

  3. As exciting and interesting as the practices appear to be, they are ultimately window dressing. There could be a school that has none of the practices mentioned, or any particular practice in place at all, but it could have a high level of professionalism (I hate that word) and kindness. There could also be a school that does all of the practices described and then some, but the environment is toxic. John Berray commented on trust, and that’s what it really is about. Where there is trust though there is also vulnerability. The practices described in your post empower the students and leaves the staff in a position of vulnerability. As long as the student participation is based upon trust and not coercion an uplifting, rewarding environment is created. We, as teachers and staff, too often betray our students trust. When they come to us as vulnerable learners we too often belittle them with grades and other labels. Is it any wonder students don’t trust us? You touched on this topic in your 10/03/2013 post about A Critical Ingredient Missing.

    1. No question, Mr. Dietz. The practices described here are symptoms of a deep care for students. The underlying thing isn’t the practices listed here, but it’s the honor and respect the staff has for the students and vice versa. That winds up manifesting itself in all these great examples of culture.

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