School Culture Rewired:

How to Define, Assess, and Transform It

“The book is intended to help you better understand the general concept of school culture, learn the strengths and weaknesses of your school culture, and—perhaps most important—influence your school culture or, if necessary, shape a new one,” so write Gruenert and Whitaker in the opening of School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It (2015, p. 3). The authors explain what to do, what to expect, and what things to look out for when trying to improve or change your school’s culture.

Gruenert and Whitaker pose the fundamental question: “Is school culture something we can predict and control, or does it control us? Put another way: Is it the sentry at the door or the monster under the bed?” (p. 17). The book presents strategies for ensuring your school’s culture is healthy and adaptable to change.

Cultural changes are difficult to put into practice because they involve people, and people are not as cooperative as things. The culture of most schools is the status quo. People are satisfied with the way things are, and thus, prefer not to change. Consequently, cultural changes are more difficult to articulate, to implement, and to assess; however, when the administration and teachers collaborate and work together as a team (Amos 3:3), even though some teachers may not fully understand the worth of a change initiative, the change is usually a positive one for the school.

Gruenert and Whitaker’s observation on structural and cultural change is insightful: “The effectiveness of a new culture depends on the strength of the people behind the change and the strength of the pre-existing culture” (p. 4). Emphasizing the importance of teachers in the rewiring of a school’s culture, the authors assert that “when teachers feel they are making a professional contribution to their school, they enjoy their work more” (p. 71).

In conclusion, Gruenert and Whitaker focus on the importance of school leadership in bringing about needed change. Change never happens without a visionary leader, whether in the school or in the classroom. Effective leaders focus on future opportunities and use problems and past failures as stepping stones to future successes.

Reading this book will give insight for how to approach rewiring the culture of your school. Although Gruenert and Whitaker write from a secular perspective, Christian school educators can gain ideas for how to improve our Christian schools and better educate our students for the cause of Christ.

What are some ways you can improve your Christian school?

Resource

Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Fall 2016 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Counting Sheep

I recently read an article about mounting data that indicates a relationship between attention disorders and sleep problems.  While to this point no causal relationship has been discovered, it is clear that students with attention disorders also have sleep problems.  It is often forgotten that children aged 5-12 need 10-11 hours of sleep.

Educators have long recognized that sleep deprivation negatively affects student performance.  Research shows that students with sleep debt are impaired in many facets, including:

  • Decreased Alertness and Ability to Maintain Focus
  • Extreme moodiness and mood swings
  • Decreased energy and motivation
  • Decreased bodily control & coordination
  • Impulsiveness

 

Are you alert to students with the signs of sleep deprivation?  What can a teacher do to address the problem?  Here are several suggestions that might help.

  • Discuss the problem with parent(s)

Parents may not be aware that sleep debt is adversely affecting classroom performance or attitudes. Ask parents to consider making schedule adjustments so that the child can get more sleep.

  • Teach students (and parents) about healthy sleep habits

While some schools used classroom instruction time to stress healthy habits, often additional instruction is needed.  Often the hardest change for parents to make is limiting screen time.  Experts suggest that children should not engage in screen time—laptops, tablets, phones, etc.—for two hours before bedtime.

  • Warn parents about the negative effects of caffeine
  • Stress the importance of routine—encourage a regular bedtime and bedtime routine that foster a consistent sleep schedule
  • Encourage parents to make sure the child’s room is conducive to sleep

The room should be dark, cool and quiet.  Keep televisions, computers, and any other personal electronics out of the bedroom.  Surveys indicate that many students, even those as low as elementary age, spend hours “on screen” after laying down in bed.

The importance of establishing good sleep habits should not be undersold.  It is vital that young children establish these routines so that their transition into the teen years and then adulthood can be healthy and happy.  Adults with poor sleep habits are usually those that never establish good sleep routines as children and teens.

What other things that you suggest to parents to help a child develop good sleep patterns?

Tips for First-Year Teachers

You’ve gone through four years of content and methods classes, and you’ve survived the gauntlet of student teaching. Congratulations! Now it’s your first year in your own classroom. No matter how good your college’s education program was, nothing quite prepares you for that first year. So, from one teacher to another, here are some tips for your first year of teaching!

You won’t feel comfortable for the first few months—and that’s OK.

In the weeks before the beginning of the school year, you can plan and make decisions about how you’ll run your classroom, but, honestly, until you get into teaching, you won’t have it all figured out. There will be a learning curve, you’ll make mistakes, and that’s ok! Learn from your mistakes. Be flexible. If a strategy or procedure isn’t working, be willing to change it. On the other hand, don’t be too quick to give up—sometimes a strategy just needs time to take effect. Give yourself time to adjust. By October or November you’ll have found your rhythm with teaching the content, scheduling your day, and adjusting to the needs of your classroom.

Don’t overload yourself.

Teachers are busy people. Teaching in itself takes a lot of time, but then there’s the time needed for preparing lessons, attending meetings, decorating your classroom, and so on. Then there are the extracurricular activities—sports, clubs, fund-raising events. While these extras are all good opportunities, your first year of teaching is probably not the best time to get heavily involved. Give yourself that first year to get to know your curriculum, lessons, and grade level.

Keep it simple, but don’t stop improving.

Lessons should be well prepared, and teachers must avoid the temptation to put little or no effort into lesson planning. But, with 30+ lessons a week, you don’t have time to spend two hours on every lesson. (Honestly, your most creative ideas may come to you while you’re teaching! Don’t be afraid to deviate mid-lesson if doing so is best for your students.) Prepare well, but don’t wear yourself out. That being said, don’t get apathetic either. Periodically target subjects or lessons to improve, and be creative! Get manipulatives to make math easier, or research fun crafts to include with history. Read articles and books and get ideas to make your lessons more exciting and effective. And don’t forget—you have access to the knowledge and experience of the teachers around you. So ask questions, get advice, and learn from the veterans.

Have a classroom management plan.

Sadly, many first-year teachers give up on teaching because of classroom management. Plan ahead! Determine what your discipline system is going to be and create procedures to help your classroom run smoothly. Implement discipline and procedures consistently. One key to effective classroom management is to be organized. If you’re scrambling around to find lesson papers or craft materials, your students will get restless or take advantage of your divided attention, so don’t give them that chance!

Do not tolerate irritation towards your students.

The ultimate goal of teaching is discipleship. Your goal should be to influence your students toward Christ. So when you are handling discipline issues, you cannot allow irritation or anger to rule your response. Just as God chastens His children in love, you must discipline your students in love. If you are struggling with wrong feelings or attitudes, repent and seek God’s help to eradicate irritation and anger towards your students. Ask God to help you love the unlovely, and you will be an example of Christlikeness to your students.

The key to being a good teacher is to be intentional. Plan, organize, and step back to evaluate how you’re doing. Your first year may be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. Enjoy the experience of your first year! After all, it only happens once.

Do you have any helpful tips for first year teachers?

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Fall 2015 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Don’t Do That

***Things Effective Teachers Don’t Do

In a world of “Just Do It” and “You Can Do It!” refrains, the word don’t sounds something like a fingernail on a chalkboard.  However, with deep apologies to Nike and Rosie the Riveter, I must contend that there’s much to be gained from stepping back and pondering the opposite side of the coin.

What are some things that effective teachers don’t do?

Effective teachers DON’T . . .

. . . yell.

. . . get their feelings hurt easily.

. . . give busywork just to give a grade.

. . . expect students to read their minds.

. . . speak while anyone else in the room is speaking.

. . . craft “tricky” test questions.

. . . take themselves too seriously.

. . . mind admitting when they are wrong.

. . . assume that students heard what they said.

. . . sit behind their desk.

. . . assign a lot of homework.

. . . huddle with other teachers in the corner of the playground during recess.

. . . leave school at 3:30 every afternoon.

. . . try to teach children as if they were adults.

. . . avoid confrontation.

. . . teach as if every student learns like they do.

. . . care more about what students know than about what students love.

. . . go home without preparing for the next morning.

. . . try to do everything.

. . . ignore a good question because it’s not part of the lesson plan.

. . . lug hours of work home each evening.

. . . overlook teachable moments.

. . . answer all their students’ questions.

. . . take the easy way out.

. . . skip their personal devotions/prayer time because they are “too busy.”

. . . stop learning.

What would you add to this list of things that effective teachers don’t do?

Watch out for the Either/Or Trap

I continue to see articles comparing teacher-led and student-centered learning.  While not rising to the level of the chicken or egg, the discussion about how to structure the classroom learning environment continues.  Many educators fall prey to the temptation of either/or, failing to achieve balance in the classroom; research shows that classrooms need active student learning to improve achievement.  Are you intentionally seeking to improve student engagement and create an active learning environment in your classroom?

In the traditional classroom, information largely flowed from teacher to student. Students had a smaller portion of designated work time to absorb and apply the knowledge gleaned from the teacher.  The problem is the skew towards teacher-led instruction, with averages often above 75 to 80 percent of allotted class time devoted to teacher talk time.

The truth is that students only stay engaged in listening for short bursts of time. One study I saw recently noted that students could recall about three-fourths of what the teacher taught in the first 10 minutes of a class; however, retention dipped to 20 percent of material presented in the last 10 minutes.

Jensen (2005) noted in his Teaching with the Brain in Mind that appropriate amounts of direct instruction time for kindergarten to adults only varied from 5-18 minutes.  While lower grade levels obviously have much shorter attention spans, Jensen found that direct instruction time for new content even for high-school age students should not exceed 15 minutes.

So what are you doing to improve student engagement in your classroom?

Here are a few reminders as you plan upcoming lessons:

  • Plan multiple short bursts during the allotted instruction time. Research shows student achievement and retention increase when instruction is segmented into smaller, “bite-sized” time frames. Early childhood teachers should think in burst of 5-8 minutes, grades three to eight in segments of 8-12 minutes, and high school teachers 12-15 minutes.

 

  • Plan multiple types of activities designed to engage various learners. Like Peter in encouraging believers to “add” to their faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge; etc., teachers should add to their verbal (linguistic) approach, visual (pictures, images, objects); and to visual, aural (auditory) or music; and to aural, kinesthetic (physical).

 

  • Plan multiple strategies to deliver important concepts. Teachers should remain aware of how students are grasping concepts so that concepts can be repeated, reinforced, or perhaps lessons can be accelerated when students “get it.”

Some say that “variety is the spice of life.” Some educators, however, seem to take refuge in “consistency;” change and variety seem to scare them.  Immutability is part of the nature of our God; however, it should not be part of our instructional model.

Are you intentionally structuring learning activities in your classroom to control the teacher speak time?  What learning activities are you including in your instructional planning to increase student engagement?  What instructional strategies do you find effective in reducing students entering a zombie state?

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 2 of 4

What are the unique qualities all great schools share? We have observed that schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  We can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers. This should be reduced to a very short statement, such as “Know, Love, and Serve Christ”. If we fail to train our students to serve Christ and to lead in the workplace and the churchplace, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will soon cease to be relevant or matter very much at all.

The second is a clear MISSION – to enroll, educate, and equip tomorrow’s leaders. Attracting these young people is a “marketing” strategy in business terminology: our students are the very best advertisement for our school and word-of-mouth is the most effective recruitment tool.  Providing incentives for our friends to recommend the school to others is appropriate and productive – as long as prospective parents see in our students what they desire for their own children: Godly people of inner character and outer kindness.

Once they enroll, we must provide a solid academic education, and that means something traditional at its core but relevant in its content and delivery. Students need a broad and deep liberal arts education, and the STEM courses are essential if the secondary and even the elementary schools are to be competitive. Upperclassmen, for example, expect dual enrollment offerings. Christian educators need to know what is available to students in the ever-expanding variety of public schools.

Of course we need to insure that our Bible curriculum teaches content and doctrines.   But we had better be emphasizing and integrating a Biblical worldview through which to understand the other courses we teach.  Kids can retrieve this and infinitely more with two clicks on an iPhone.  We must teach them to read critically and to discern Biblically.  Bible worldview must be integrated on every grade level and for every subject (the writer will share his “Blue Papers” upon request), including math, and should culminate in a capstone senior course.  Graduates need such training in order to defend their faith and to attack error.

The fine arts, in particular music, are ministry tools and life skills. We must provide all the instruction possible on every grade level.  Additionally, intramural and interscholastic competition teach Christian conduct in a pressure-cooker unavailable in the classroom.  We need to do more with younger children.  Arts and athletics contribute mightily to a well-rounded, useful graduate.  They help us complete our mission.

Part 1: Mandate (Feb.21)         Part 2: Mission (April 18)          Part 3: Method (Coming soon)         Part 4: Remember the children (Coming soon)

Questions, Questions Everywhere

For some reason my recent reading has taken me to several selections that discuss the art of questioning.  Experience reminds me that questioning is often friend or foe, depending on who is asking the challenging question.  Even in reading the New Testament, I have again noticed that Jesus’ teaching included adept questioning.

Research shows us that questioning is closely linked to critical thinking.  For that reason, teachers should give attention to the questioning techniques implemented into the teaching process.  Observation reminds me that many times teachers carefully prepare to teach a lesson but that preparation does not include carefully crafted questions.

So when I happened upon an article in Education Update about questioning, my interest was piqued.  Jeanne Muzi, a teacher from New Jersey, began the article by connecting classroom questioning to critical thinking.  However, upon closer examination, I noted that she took a completely different tact than I had taken to that point.  Her article was entitled Five Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning (emphasis mine).

She offered apt reminders like “all students need to generate purposeful questions” and “a significant instructional shift takes place when a classroom culture is transformed from one where the teacher poses the majority of questions to one where a community of curious wonderers offer up their own.”

Improving Student Questions

What are you doing in your classroom to improve student questioning?  Muzi offered five classroom activities that a teacher can use to improve student questioning; I have shared on three below:

Pass-Arounds

Circulate a unique object (photograph, antique, item from nature, etc.) around the classroom.  Ask students to develop questions that “uncover more information about” the object, not identify it.  After students have put together their list of questions, discuss which questions will be most helpful in learning about the object.  Of course, take time to answer the questions.

Q-Stems

Using a set of sentence-stem cards developed by the teacher, students draw a stem card and try to generate as many questions as possible about a concept using a single Q-stem.  Stems could include starters like:  Why…? What is another way to describe…? Are there…? How…? Is it possible that …?  After questions are developed, take time to go back and answer the questions before moving on to another stem.

Whose Eyes?

Distribute or project a copy of a photograph (famous illustration, historic setting, current event) and allow students to thoughtfully look at the item.  The, ask students to develop a set of questions that might come from any character in the photo.  It could be a prominent character but might work better to choose a lesser character.  Then ask students to pose their question(s) to the class and provide a rationale for the question.

As teachers, we must continually hone our questioning skills.  Why?  Because effective questioning cannot be separated from the critical thinking.  However, as we seek to improve our questioning skills, let’s not forget to strengthen student questioning skills as well.

Can you share a technique that you use in your classroom to strengthen student questioning?

 

Muzi, J.  (2017, January).  Five ways to strengthen student questioning.  Education Update, Vol. 59, (1).  ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.

Great Expectations

3 R’s of a Positive Classroom Culture

Creating a positive classroom culture goes beyond classroom management.  Even the word “management” implies handling or controlling.  However, as teachers, our job is not merely to manage our students while they are in our classrooms but to prepare them to leave our classrooms ready for the next challenge.  If we only manage our students, we do them a disservice.  Our classroom culture should be one that equips our students for life-long learning and success.

It’s always a great moment on the first day of school each year when I announce to my sixth graders that there are no rules in our sixth grade classroom.  The boys’ eyes widen, and they begin to cheer.  The girls look somewhat terrified, and their face belies their belief that I am, indeed, the craziest teacher they have ever had.

It’s true, I tell them.  Our classroom will have no rules.

Rather, we will operate by three guiding principles – three “Great Expectations”
that apply to us all.  Everything we do (and how we do it!) will be filtered through these three principles: Respect, Responsibility, Restraint.

Respect

As teachers, we tend to see disrespect when it is directed toward authority, particularly our authority.  However, it is vital that we help our students learn respect not only for authority, but also for truth, others, property, boundaries, human life, beauty, goodness, and everything that God holds as worthy of respect.

Responsibility

Responsibility is the hallmark of maturity.  Responsibility comes from a proper understanding of our place in God’s world and an ability to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.  At an age-appropriate level, we need to foster responsibility in our students.

Restraint

This elusive quality naturally flows out of respect and responsibility.  Too often, however, we teachers correct lack of restraint but ignore the underlying lack of respect and responsibility.  As students begin to internalize a proper respect for their place in the world, they will begin to exhibit self-restraint, not mere conformity to a list of rules on the classroom wall.

“Great expectations can lead to great opportunities as we seek to instill in our students principles that will equip them to find their identity in Christ, esteem others higher than themselves, and fulfill the purposes God has for them.

What “Great Expectations” do you have for your students?