Cultivating Culture

If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the place where you feel like your most authentic self, where would you find yourself? What would surround you? Who would be there? What would this place sound like? What would it feel like? What kinds of things are explored there?

Now imagine yourself in your staff room, or the front foyer, or the playground, or the learning commons, or the classroom of your school. How do these two places compare? What is different? What is the same? What is missing?

I try to do this mental exercise quite a bit in my own school, and in other buildings that I visit. It is a good way to remind myself what I value in these spaces and to assess what is actually there. Sometimes I pay more attention to what I hear—to how people are interacting, to the tone of their conversations, and to their complexity and depth. Other times I look at the walls of the spaces—what they tell me about whose voice matters in the space and what is important. Still other times, I want to sit or stand or move through a space to see how it feels to simply ‘be’ in it.

We are famous, as educators, for asking others to take risks. Teachers do this to students, and administrators do it to teachers. We see risk-taking as a key element of learning and growth, and we want learners to trust us enough to fail, to believe that failure is non-catastrophic, even though it might be uncomfortable. The problem is that we often assume that the conditions for risk are optimal, or at least positive and supportive, and this is often not the case, which is why so much of what we attempt to change in our schools is doomed to failure.

Culture is the soil in which learning and risk taking happens. It is both the environment that allows it to sprout, and the conditions and interactions that are required to allow it to grow and spread.

Some of the elements of culture are directly connected to learning, like offering options for groupings and seating and social and intellectual norms. Other elements, like empathy and connectedness, are just as crucial but are harder to measure.

The former parts of your school are easy to alter. The physical space can be changed for the better with small purchases—or even for little to no cost if we think creatively. What often happens, unfortunately, is that these easy-to-change items are where we stop. We think that changing the space will change the culture. In my experience, this is never the case. Pedagogy, space, and relationships must all be weighed equally when we make changes (and when we hope to encourage change!).

How do the relationships in your building support a culture of learning and risk taking? How do they inhibit it? Are your professional and learning relationships compatible with your pedagogy? Do they share the same vision of the learner? Does your space fit your work with students? Does it reflect and support their unique needs?

I look forward to exploring these questions of culture with you this weekend during #tg2chat.

Mark Sonnemann is principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Ontario. Find more of his writing on Medium.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook. And please join Mark and co-moderator Monte Syrie (yes, the guy who let Meg sleep) for a follow-up #tg2chat on creating classroom culture this Sunday, May 27 at 9 p.m. EDT/6 p.m. PDT.

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