Everything Is Not Always Awesome, But It Can Be
A positive school culture is critical to the success of any school. As educators, we know that staying positive in the wake of planning, paperwork, meetings, grading, and all of the other administrative tasks is tough, especially when we got into this business because we love to work with students. It takes more effort than simply "putting on a happy face," as the musical number goes. The bigger question is always, "How do you do it?"
I served on the committee that chooses the American School Counselor Association School Counselor of the Year for several years and read hundreds of applications about dynamic counselors who made an impact on the school they served. In some cases, the finalists were high school counselors juggling college applications processes and difficult teenage situations while others were elementary counselors who worked through challenges that would test the mettle of any adult, not to mention seven and eight-year-olds. The common denominator was that it is through simple, informal actions that these counselors connected to their communities: greeting students at the front door of the building every day to give them a simple hello or high five; sitting with them at lunch; holding regular classroom meetings about grief, empathy, or peer counseling; and staying in touch with parents and teachers. These are just a few of the things we read about and I'm sure there are examples similar to these close to home for you as you read this.
As a middle school teacher, I learned quickly that no class or experience in graduate school would prepare me to be part of a school with low morale. I was never trained on how to work with a student who was gay and confident about it at 12 years old, for example, and how other students would react to that reality, not to mention the adults involved in the situation. I was very fortunate to work with principals who responded quickly and supported my team of teachers who needed guidance, but it wasn’t perfect. (Is it ever?) If you asked me in the days leading up to spring break about school morale, I know that most of my colleagues would say it was in the dumps. We were exhausted, worried about how much was left to be done, and knew the sand in the hourglass was running low. Yet we also knew we were in it together and I’ve personally never worked with a group of people who felt indebted to one another more so than in a school.
I wear the parental hat more than the teacher hat now and I know that communication is the key. Keeping the lines of communication open is what can really save a school from being tagged with a low morale label. If your lines of communication are open and trust is established among the adults in the community, then morale should be relatively stable. If the grown-ups in the school environment can demonstrate that they support one another, students inevitably pick up on it. For me, being open and addressing issues quickly was, and is, a big part of leading.
There is no magic pill to take when it comes to building and sustaining a positive school setting. It takes time, energy, and most importantly, the right combination of people to create a culture of success.
Kevin Scott is a strategic advisor for Constituent Programs at ASCD, facilitating its programs and initiatives created for younger educators, such as the Emerging Leaders and ASCD Student Chapter programs. He also provides services and consultation to ASCD affiliates. Before coming to ASCD, Scott served as member services manager for the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) at the National School Board Association (NSBA), where he facilitated meetings with members, wrote CUBE's Urban Edge newsletter, provided content for NSBA's BoardBuzz blog, and maintained CUBE's presence on Twitter. Scott spent seven years teaching 7th grade history in Fairfax County Public Schools and has worked for other associations as the education director.