Building School Culture

It all started on a school yard bench, with a sad 7-year-old student, ‘Sam’. He was downcast, not making eye contact and absently kicking gravel away from the bench seat. It took some coaxing, but essentially he told me that he believed that he was friendless and that he hated playtimes. I responded thoughtfully, ‘I can see you are really unhappy’, and sat quietly with him for a while. My mind was racing. I actually felt like crying with him! Not very resourceful I know, but that was the beginning of my campaign, as principal, to make schools friendlier, safer places.

I returned to chats with Sam, and subsequent ‘Sams’ repeatedly over the months and years I led this school and those following; seeking ideas, touching base to see how he/they was going and ‘checking’ with them as a type of ‘barometer’ of our effectiveness.

What did we do?

We introduced a range of initiatives across the schools; many staff created and others increasingly generated by students themselves, to utilise student support of their year level peers and other age groups, in classrooms and in the schoolyard.

What worked?

Being clear about our values — not just as ideas, but in action too
In hindsight, I think this was the most important step: Shared language (in this case values), shared understanding of these key values and shared commitment to action. And these things shared, not just by staff and parents, but by students too!

In various iterations, we agreed to a set of values as a whole school; students and parents included. For example, at the second to last South Australian school I led, these values were RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY and EXCELLENCE. In my current school they are RESPECT, RESPONSIBILITY and RESILIENCE. Wherever you are, and whatever is chosen (by the whole community) the key word here is ‘agreed’!

In our behaviour management policy, which was in fact a statement of the ways our values would manifest to build a supportive learning culture, we wrote that our underpinning principles were:

  • A success orientation — a strengths based approach to building on what works and what students find most helpful.

  • The use of explicit, descriptive, positive language and common understandings based on our school values.

  • The understanding that punishment has limited value and that restorative practices correct and educate and that mistakes are an opportunity to learn.

  • Mutual respect and positive relationships. Staff did their utmost to convey the message, “I see you and you matter to me”, with all students.

Building student agency through Forum Groups
The major culture shifts occurred as we moved from teaching about democracy to operating a democratic culture which encouraged students to express their citizenship by being involved. Forums were an opportunity for students to develop leadership and organisational skills while being involved in, leading and participating in the management of aspects of the school and service to the school.

Students were invited to be part of Forums initiated by staff, some short and some long term. For example, the disco group ran to set up the event, whereas the ACE — Assistant Computer Experts (Student Technology Leaders), OHSW and library teams had ongoing roles and responsibilities. Over time, students were the majority in these groups, and they managed significant parts of school operations and initiated many new ideas.

Students were also invited to initiate Forums for any activity they thought might be relevant. They were invited to develop an Action Plan which included: intended outcomes, timelines, roles and responsibilities, requirements for a Budget Line (What money they needed to set up? What would be done with any money raised?) and an identified adult link for communication and support. Student initiated forums included: lunchtime activities such as clubs, sports skills clinics and tournaments; remodelling and beatification projects such as gardens, classroom areas and shared spaces; fundraising activities; problem solving activities such as dealing with ‘hot spots’ in the yard, poorly accessed areas and difficulties related to new crazes (card trading games, space for skipping etc).

The First 2 Weeks Program
The first two weeks of every year began with a specially planned Learning to Learn Program. Planned by staff in consultation with parents and students, and eventually in greater collaboration with students, this program was a key factor in embedding the school culture, renegotiating classroom norms, and getting set up as a community of learners.

Classroom management and planning 
Regular renegotiation of classroom tone, classroom etiquette and layout of the physical environment with students.

Especially important was the consistent ‘un-packing’ (looks like, sounds like, feels like, thinks like and explicit modelling) of classroom and yard values and appropriate behaviours.

During the first 2 weeks program, teachers worked with their students to produce, and then review and revisit three displays — ‘An Successful Student’, ‘An Successful Classroom’ and ‘An Successful Teacher’. These statements became the focal point of behaviour challenges throughout the year. For example: if a student was repeatedly disruptive, the teacher would pick a time to have a discussion with the class about how the ‘successful classroom’ agreements were going, ‘what worked well’ (WWW) and ‘even better if’ (EBI) might be the frame for the discussion. Together a re-commitment to the agreed behaviours would be made, not singling out the individual(s) not co-operating, but engaging them in problem solving to re-settle and re-engage as a class.

Creating safe conditions for learning is vital to effective learning. We’ve found that developing a ‘personal code of practice’ was a powerful exercise for teams of teachers as they reflected on the roles they played in creating that safe environment. Sharing this with students is another powerful sharing of power and commitment to co-construction of the classroom culture.

Anti-harassment programs
Across the school we ran ‘Anti Harassment Training’, in all classroom programs and as an annual focus week. Before and after focus weeks, student researchers collected random data on the number of students confidently able to identify what harassment was and what our harassment processes were. New initiatives were developed with students to ensure high levels of engagement and understanding.

Buddy Stop
An outdoor initiative was the introduction of a ‘stop sign’ labeled ‘BUDDY STOP’. The idea was that students would go and wait at the Buddy Stop if they needed a friend, and others would include those waiting there in their games. There was a teacher on yard supervision duty nearby, briefed to support the connection process if necessary, and to acknowledge the thoughtfulness of those initiating inclusion.

We had student-led assembly presentations about how to use it, frequent classroom discussions and acknowledgments for the ‘includers’. Student feedback about what worked, and what didn’t, shaped our approach.

Soon into its implementation, we realised that we needed to be aware of any students relying on this as their way to initiate play with others, as well as the frequency of use. This became a Friendly Desk role.

Friendly Desk
In response to research suggesting that as much as 80% of school yard conflict was unresolved, we were keen to find an additional way to teach problem solving and social skills and to empower children to manage conflict more effectively.

We introduced peer mediation across the school. There was a strong classroom focus in the first two weeks program, and in an ongoing way.

To support mediation in the yard, we actually set up two ‘desks’ — taken out of nearby flexible spaces, and returned after each break — and had students available to help others. We called for volunteers to act as mediators from our older student cohorts. The roles were explained at an assembly and students volunteered to act as mediators, in pairs either at one of two Friendly Desks or as roving mediators/student support.

As we move away from simply consulting students toward students being positioned as ‘students-as-researchers’, this work could be part of a student research team’s role. We weren’t in that headspace at the time we implemented Friendly Desks, but did use a great deal of student input and student management. 

Buddy Learning opportunities
We used a range of formal and informal buddy programs such as GO-Reading (a program where older students supported the sight word development and fluency of young readers), cross-age tutoring, and Buddy Classes that teamed up, across year levels, to share their learning, successes and inquiries.

Success Lunch 
Success Lunch started as a way to welcome new students to the school and have them meet the school leadership team. Once a week the leadership team members would all sit in the staffroom with new students and simply eat their lunch and chat together. Students bought their packed or pre-ordered lunch and chatted with the leadership team as they ate their own food. Simple, no organisation and highly effective in building relationships with new students.

Existing students suggested that others should have a chance to join in, and so it became Success Lunch. Students were selected, nominated or volunteered to eat their lunch with the leadership team and to celebrate their successes. Learning samples, reading aloud skills, acknowledgement for initiative, citizenship, caring etc were shared, ‘High 5-ed’ and discussed. I treasured this opportunity to share in some of the classroom successes I might have missed otherwise, and it involved giving up 15 or so minutes a week. Brilliant!

What do you do in your site to build a strong and resilient school culture?