School Climate & Safety Opinion

What Do Great White Sharks Teach Us About School Culture?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 18, 2017 4 min read
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A valuable asset that human beings posses is the need and ability to communicate. After watching a National Geographic entitled “The Whale That Ate Jaws”, we were reminded communication is an essential aspect for all living creatures. It was a fascinating documentary about the unexpected observation of a killer whale killing a great white shark. The curiosity of the scientists peaked when the surviving great whites totally disappeared from the area, permanently. After long study, they determined that the smell of the death was a warning and deterrent. The other sharks were deterred by the odor of death, it became acculturated within the group and, ultimately, they all permanently left the area in which they had lived and flourished.

Communication Beyond Words

As educators most of our actions and observations are based on words. We communicate with them and focus on what we believe they mean and represent. Words can mean different things to different people in different situations. Words matter. The actions that accompany those words matter also. Beginning with the manner in which students are greeted at the door as they enter schools, we impact the state of mind they will bring to their learning. Some students are met with metal detectors and police officers. There are at least two different responses students may have. One is to feel that they are not trusted and have to be checked to be sure they are not bringing danger to the school. The other is that they are being protected against others who may be bringing danger. How do you know what each student is feeling as they enter the building and how will they bring that to their learning?

Are Teachers and Leaders Paying Attention?

The truth is we cannot know what others are feeling, whether they are children or adults unless we listen and watch carefully. What does their body language tell us? What do their words and actions reveal? Not surprisingly an answer to those questions may be, “Who has time for that?”. We contend that without investing time examining how what we do affects what the students are doing, all the teaching methods in the world won’t improve student achievement in a lasting way. Learning, for adults and children alike, is a process of being vulnerable. We ask children to remain open all day long, while the adults can remain, protected, in their heads, accessing and sharing information, creating and managing learning environments in which the seeds for student achievement are sown. It is done with a technical skill that sometimes overlooks attention the culture of the classroom and the school into which information is being poured.

School Culture is Affected by Even the Smallest of Actions

Often decisions are made based on the behavior of one child. They may have not lived up to the expectations of the classroom or the school and a consequence is delivered or not. There is a message, intentional or not, that goes out to the rest of the organization and it will inform future behavior. After all, the sharks developed avoidance behavior as they acquired a natural fear from the smell of death of one of their own.

What happens when the child of a board member or with very involved parents, receives a different type of discipline after taking a wrong step? What happens when teachers are in the hallway greeting students or when they are not? Thinking about it in schools, what happens when students of color receive more referrals than white students? What happens when teachers greet a child and fails to recognize the emotions that child is wearing on their sleeve? What happens when the first young Sikh man joins the school community or the first young woman wears a hijab to school? Are they welcomed with messages offering understanding of culture to the rest of the school population or are they on their own, sent into classrooms and hallways pretending the difference won’t be noticed and won’t matter? Is the culture firmly established or can it adjust with new perspectives and situations?

School Culture, Instinct, and Communication

As school leaders consider school culture, it might be worth thinking about the instincts of those great white sharks. Where there is danger, they learn to stay away. Without benefit of words as language, instinct, senses, and some way to communicate among themselves, they develop behaviors that change their way of life. It affects even where they go to find their food, a life giving behavior. It is possible to learn a great deal about a school culture from observing a school cafeteria. How do students gather when it is lunch time? How do adults interact with students? All these are signs that reveal culture.

In the End

School culture is a network of learned behaviors. Culture develops over time and changes slowly. If the natural world can share messages and make accommodations, how much easier should it be for us who can use words? But do words actually and often obscure the message that makes all the difference to a child? No one wants anyone, child or adult, in a school environment to feel danger. One thing is for certain. No one wants the culture to encourage students to stay away. No one wants to create a lesson like the one learned by the great white sharks.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.