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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Your School Culture Encourage Risk-Taking or Rule Following?

By Peter DeWitt — October 02, 2012 4 min read
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If principals build a school culture where their teachers can take risks, teachers will be more apt to have classrooms where risk taking is encouraged.

Yesterday, most of the staff and students in our school district wore blue to Stomp Out Bullying. Students entered school with their homemade shirts while others just wore blue. It was a proud day when the K-12 buildings come together and everyone shows their support to end bullying. As Todd Whitaker always says, “It’s people not programs.”

There is extensive research that shows school climate having a profound impact on students’ mental and physical health” (National School Climate Center). The school culture plays a vital role in what our students learn and how they learn it. If students are walking into a caring and innovative school culture, they are more engaged and feel as though the adults around them are looking out for their well-being. Wearing blue on the same day is just one way we can do that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture because I feel it does not only mean that we make students feel safe, it also means how we engage our students by allowing them to make mistakes. As a principal, when students are sent to the office I feel it is an opportunity for us both to learn something new. I learn more about the student and they learn more about life. Let’s face it, we all make mistakes.

School culture is also how we engage our parent community as well. “The process of teaching and learning is fundamentally relational. The patterns of norms, goals, values, and interactions that shape relationships in schools provide an essential area of school climate. One of the most important aspects of relationships in school is how connected people feel to one another” (National School Climate Center).

A Technology Culture
It’s not another thing on the plate...it’s the plate.

A colleague made the above statement one time when we were looking at curriculum and instruction. I view school culture as the plate for which we build everything else on. Whether it’s zero tolerance policies, BYOT, flipped classrooms or parent communication they all sit on the plate of school culture.

The other day I sat on a panel at an EdNet Conference in Baltimore. The attendees and most of the panel were all from the technology industry. Everyone on the panel was matched with a partner. The panel had to discuss different topics and I was given the task to discuss BYOT. My panel partner was a fantastic guy named Michael Jay from outside of Seattle who is the President of Educational Systems.

When we discussed BYOT, I focused on the culture that is needed, not the infrastructure. There will always be the infrastructure argument that schools can’t make it happen, but if the culture wants it to happen bad enough they can find ways to meet their goal (Keep in mind that just because a school is not doing BYOT right now, doesn’t mean they aren’t taking the time to plan it out. Great ideas take planning).

In addition, when thinking of big ideas like BYOT a school culture doesn’t focus on a few students who may do the wrong thing, they focus on creating an environment where students want to do the right thing, and rules to discipline those who abuse the privilege. The same thing can be said for other innovative school practices coming our way.

If principals build a school culture where their teachers can take risks, teachers will be more apt to have classrooms where risk taking is encouraged. For me, the worst thing about failing is when we don’t learn from it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and come back the next day trying something different to find success.

Learning Environment
We have a habit of talking a lot about 21st century skills and all of the things that should come with it like collaboration, creativity and communication to name a few. In order to meet the needs of our students, and the goals of 21st century skills we really need to make sure we are offering opportunities to them.

The problem is that schools are filled with many rules and board policies, which are completely necessary for when things go wrong. Unfortunately, most of those focus on what will happen when students and staff do the wrong thing which is kind of what is happening at the state and national level. We need to make sure we are also focusing on what happens when students and staff are doing the right thing. We need to encourage risk-taking and loosen up on the focus of rule following which I understand is getting more difficult with our testing crazed system.

Over the seven years I have been a principal I am fortunate enough to be a part of a district that allows me to take risks. Principals who are allowed to take risks are more likely to have teachers who do and students who do as well. Anything else would be hypocritical.

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Thapa, Amrit, Jonathan Cohen, Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro & Shawn Guffey (2012). School Climate Research Summary: August 2012. National School Climate Center. New York, N.Y.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.