Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Creating a Culture Where Students Want to Succeed’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 09, 2014 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

Katie Keeler asked:

How do you create a school culture or even classroom culture in which students strive for success and are expected to strive for success?

Part One of this series featured responses from educators Jeffrey Benson, Christopher Lehman, and Barbara Blackburn, and I also shared a few of my own thoughts.

Today’s post includes comments from Margaret A. Seale, Maurice J. Elias, Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Dr. Howie Knoff. I also share ideas contributed by readers.

You might also be interested in listening to a ten minute conversation I had with Christopher and Heather on my BAM! Radio show.

Response From Margaret A. Seale

Margaret A. Searle is the president of Searle Enterprises, Inc., an educational consulting firm. She is an adjunct professor for Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. You can visit Margaret’s Web site here. She is the author of What Every School Leader Needs to Know About RTI (ASCD, 2010):

Creating a Culture Where Students Want to Succeed

To identify effective interventions for students who refuse to work [Editor’s Note: In an unpublished portion of Katie’s question, she describes some students at her school unwilling to work], I need to know the answer to one question: “What keeps this student from being motivated?” Unless I know a root cause that is within my sphere of influence it is unlikely that I will find an appropriate solution.

For example, if I think the reason for a student’s refusal to work is that she has a dysfunctional family life there is nothing I can do because I am not in control of this family. I know, however, that some students in dysfunctional families do their work, so there must be other variables that influence a student’s choice to work or not. Some root causes I can control are:

1. Fear of failure. If Joe thinks the assignment is going to make him feel frustrated or look stupid, he may decide that being obnoxious is a better choice than working. Providing scaffolding through modeling and guided practice helps Joe develop the “I can” attitude and positive self-talk it takes to gain confidence.

2. Retaliation. If Linda believes the teacher has treated her unfairly or doesn’t care about her needs and feelings, her motivation to “go the extra mile” remains low. The more Linda feels like an outsider the less she cares about compliance. Nothing builds a cooperative attitude better than a good relationship with teachers and peers.

3. Need for power and attention. Jason can feel very powerful by refusing cooperate. Teachers who avoid responding publicly to confrontations and who embed choices into assignments provide positive ways for students to feel in control. When dealing out consequences it is smart to go with the gentlest effective choice. In general, the more harsh the punishment the less helpful it is in the long run.

There are many other root causes such as executive function delays in the areas of memory, impulse control, organization, planning, attention focus and self-monitoring that make students look like “I won’ts” when they are actually “I can’ts”. Find the right cause and good intervention choices will be clearer.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting,” and a book young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

Jonathan Cohen and I wrote, in 2011, School climate: Building safe, supportive and engaging classrooms and schools . The message is that creating a new school culture is possible if you follow a few essential steps and you recognize that it takes 2-3 years for the transformation to take place. Okay, maybe sometimes 3-4 years.

The first step is to establish a team/committee in your school that will become the leadership team and experts in school culture and climate. This team needs to have some time to educate themselves in the tasks involved in climate assessment and improvement.

The second step is do a systematic assessment of your school culture and climate. The Culture and Climate team will play a key role in selecting the assessment approach. There are a few instruments that can help you with this; cost, ease of administration, the nature of the report provided, and turnaround time will be among your main considerations (see Character.org and Safe Supportive Learning for resources). More and more schools are using ASCD’s Whole Child approach and assessment materials. Some schools use walkthroughs for assessment or as supplements.

Third, a process must be created to share the climate assessment information with staff and students, and perhaps parents as well. It is important to celebrate strengths as well as determine areas in need of improvement. Note that discrepancies, e. g., between staff and student perceptions or between subgroups of students or staff, are important indicators of areas of concern.

Next, from the assessment information, prioritization must take place about one or two areas to address. Even if there are many needs, it will only be possible to make lasting gains in some areas in any given school year. This may be the greatest challenge of all, being disciplined in created a plan for steady and sustainable change. One high priority area in most assessments is improving student voice, engagement, and connection to school. Cohen and Elias (2011) provide proven strategies that can be included as part of assessment plans. Middle and high schools should be sure to include student representatives in any climate improvement efforts.

Finally, the entire cycle of assessment, planning, implementation, evaluation of what was done, and re-assessment continues, containing a cycle of continuous improvement. To the specific point of your, dissatisfactions with the discipline system are frequent causes of school climate problems and the assessment process will uncover this if it is in fact primary (or perhaps a symptom of deeper causes). There are no shortcuts to creating a positive, productive, safe, caring, challenging, supportive and engaging school culture and climate. It’s not something that can happen by focusing only on one’s own classroom, or even a few classrooms. It takes a whole school to make a better school.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She has authored workbooks on teaching Internet Literacy, Project Based Writing, and Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core. She is the author of ˜Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers and Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing Across the Content Areas. Heather blogs for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org as well as her own www.tweenteacher.com:

I start from day one. When we create our classroom constitution, it isn’t just about our online and classroom behavior. It’s also about the expectations we have as academics. It’s our first step in establishing a culture of success, They have say in the language of our constitution, signing it with quill pens to boot, That really sets the tone of ownership in the classroom. We make our own quill pens, by the way. It’s a messy project, but middle schoolers love it.

Another activity I conduct before launching into any significant small group project is having the kids create their own “collaboration constitutions.” In my book, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing Across the Content Areas, I describe it as such:

“This contract was a team charter that helped students create expectations for how to collaborate together. It also served as a rubric in which to assess each other at the end of the unit.”

In the book, I give multiple examples of this team charter, but I also give them guidance as well. Here are the instructions I pose to the students as they create their Collaboration Constitution:

Team Charter Template: Collaboration Constitution

You need to design a contract that all team members (and their parents/guardians) will sign. Think about the following as you draft your team charter:

1. What will be the roles and/or responsibilities of each member of the team as they relate to the project?

2. How often will you meet outside of school?

3. How will you communicate outside of school? (email, Skype, virtual classroom, phone, etc...?)

4. How much time passes before a reply to a question or comment is considered unacceptable?

5. What script can you develop or sentence stem can you use to tell someone they aren’t holding their weight or participating the way they should?

6. What strategies can you develop in order to increase participation from members before coming to the teacher for intervention?

7. What are your deadlines?

8. What are the roles/responsibilities of each member as it relates to running the group? In other words, is there a group leader, recorder, timer, etc...?

9. What are the norms of your meetings?

10. Begin your Collaboration Constitution with a Mission Statement. A mission statement is an agreed upon set of goals that you all are setting out to accomplish. For instance:

The mission of our group, Team ________, is to collaborate in order to develop the highest quality project we can present. We will abide by the rules of our constitution in order to research an issue, produce a website, and present our solutions together.

11. You will end your Team Charter with lines to be signed by all members of your team. Another copy of the document will go to each team member’s home to be signed by a parent/guardian in order for him or her to understand the nature of the project in which you are participating.

Some of the consequences for breaching that contract can be rather extreme (“we will charge you $20 if you do not answer emails within 48 hours of receiving them”), but they can also be quite reasonable. All of them were created by students and agreed upon by students; and I’ve never known a consequence to have to be enforced, and I have never had a group come to me with conflict that first didn’t try to solve the problem themselves.

In my classroom, at the end of the year, I also have the students do a Courtesy Contract. I talk more about this in my book, ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. The Courtesy Contract is a constitution of sorts that is meant to help the kids goal set in the years beyond school. After all, my time with them is short. But in the time I got to know them, got to see the best in them, I want them to be able to freeze-frame this picture of themselves and strive to retain the best in themselves. What are their goals? What can they vow to try to be as an adult? This contract is signed and kept in a huge binder in my classroom library. I have about 2500 of them now for students to read during silent reading time. When students have come back to me as adults, I have even provided copies for them to have of their own Courtesy Contract. It’s a powerful document and one they take seriously...at least while they are on my shift. But I also hope beyond it too.

At a school-wide level, it’s vital to celebrate the community. Host assemblies about different cultures in your demographics, award badges that are actually worthwhile, hold aloft the student that is not just hitting a certain GPA but who is showing the persistence and effort it takes to succeed beyond school’s tests. It’s important not to segregate the high achievers with those students showing great effort. These are both commendable and deserve an equal amount of recognition.

In addition, all schools should have a culture that encourages learning beyond that school’s walls. Whether it is establishing a college going culture or a career-based environment, it’s vital that schools are not a metaphorically walled in place where life exists inside that differs from life outside. College pendants, career-based workshops, speakers from outside the school community should be embedded into the environment and routine of the campus. The walls of a school should reflect a future possibility. The halls should honor dreams. The rooms to help prepare for them.

Response From Dr. Howie Knoff

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant, and Director of Project ACHIEVE, an evidence-based school improvement program and the Arkansas Department of Education’s State Improvement Grant. He is Past-President of the National Association of School Psychologists and the author of 17 books, his most recent is: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management: A Positive Behavioral Support Implementation Guide (Corwin Press, 2012):

Let’s not oversimplify here. To answer this question for most schools, we need to use a number of evidence-based blueprints that address positive school climate and effective interpersonal relationships, positive behavioral supports and behavioral accountability, and staff and student social, emotional, and behavioral interactions. These blueprints need to be applied to each individual school (or district) in the context of their people (students, staff, and parents/community), history, norms, needs, resources, goals, and desired outcomes. All of this should result in plans and activities that are school-sensitive and staff and student-centered; and that establish, sustain, and institutionalize a culture--based on consistent behavioral interactions--that maximizes students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success.

Three essential blueprints from our school improvement and positive behavioral support system (PBSS) work across the country are essential--those that address: (a) interpersonal and inter-professional processes, (b) the science of positive behavioral support systems (PBSSs), and (c) student accountability and motivation.

Relative to interpersonal and inter-professional processes, it is important to recognize that school climate and culture is the sum of the following interactions: (a) staff-to-staff, (b) staff-to-parent/community, (c) staff-to-student, and (d) student-to-student interactions. If students are expected to get along at the same time that they see staff “behaving badly” with each other, then the climate unravels into a “Do as I say and not as I do” mentality. Relative to a blueprint here, we emphasize the “Seven C’s": Communication, Caring, Commitment, Collaboration, Consultation, Celebration, and Consistency.

Relative to the scientific blueprint underlying PBSSs, we have successfully worked with over 1,500 schools nationwide in this area since 1990. With an ultimate goal of teaching and sustaining students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and intervention, and emotional coping interactions, there are five interdependent components: (a) positive school-wide and classroom climates and interpersonal relationships; (b) explicit classroom and common school area expectations complemented by the teaching of these expectations as social, emotional, and behavioral skills; (c) a successful student motivation system that also holds student accountable for appropriate behavior; (d) staff and student consistency relative to all three of the components above; and (e) a special focus on keeping all common school areas safe and positive so that teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression are prevented.

Finally, relative to student accountability and motivation, we help schools develop Behavioral Matrices at their respective grade levels. These matrices identify students’ behavioral expectations--connected with incentives and rewards. They also identify intensities of inappropriate student behavior--connected with strategic responses that eliminate the inappropriate behavior and motivate positive or prosocial behaviors. Intensity I--Annoying behaviors receive corrective responses. Intensity II--Classroom-based disruptive behaviors receive classroom-based consequences followed by restitution and opportunities to practice the appropriate behavior. Intensity III--Antisocial or Major disruptive behaviors receive out-of-classroom responses and consequences, followed by restitution and positive practice. And, Intensity IV--Code of Conduct offenses receive administrative responses, later consequences, and restitution and positive practice.

In the end, the focus is on teaching and reinforcing positive, prosocial, and proactive interactions. Giving the peer group as much responsibility and lead as possible, climate change and student self-motivation and self-accountability is possible. But it must be a planned and systemic process involving the entire school community.

Responses From Readers

Zane Dickey:

The key to fostering a culture of success is communication.

1) Define the question: What is the culture of our school? What types of students do we have? What are the strengths and weaknesses? How do we define Success? What does success look like? Feel like? Sound like? What if excellence for one is mediocrity for another? How does this translate to students if standards are different. Educators must have time to discuss both standards and how to make students successful to meet those standards.

2) There has to be a school culture of communication because when educators are able to discuss students and purpose then figuring out how to move forward is easier because we are all on the same page. No collaboration means students and teachers are not developing. It must be a systems approach where all the areas of knowledge are being considered not in isolation but as a team to help students develop into successful critical thinkers.

An example of this happened the other day. We are trying to be an evidence based research school and MLA is our style of choice. When each child knows where to put there name, teacher’s name, class, and date and title there becomes consistency and a common standard across the grades and each teacher and student can help one another. It becomes a “team” effort and it actually enables everyone to focus on deeper learning and an understanding that a student must provide credible sources to be up their information. These then become the norm in all disciplines.

3) The school must also celebrate those successes and discuss how they were done and how to continue to improve. You then create the team feel and supporting others in the process.

John Bennett:

The school culture is, to me, far better than a classroom culture. That culture will be meaningful for all if indeed it’s not silos of culture - different in each classroom. A culture of success is one that motivates effective, deeper learning. It is student-centered around real-world activities. It is not aligned with any teach-to-the-test approach - with actual testing be only time used (likely with better results however). It is standards-aligned, not specific curriculum / class script based. My choice specifically would be PBL.


To build a classroom community Students have to think of it as “ours,” not the teacher’s. They need to have a hand in making the rules, deciding what, when, and how they will learn, setting the schedule, planning events, etc. I do not mean that the kids should be running things, but that they have a voice--and some choice--about their responsibilities.

I recognize that I’m not fully responding to the original question by Katie Keeler that included the word “success,” and I’m not sure what she meant by it. In my own mind their is a range of possibilities in any classroom. If a kid who has often been in trouble, get’s through a school year without being suspended, that’s success. If another, who has always been a couple of years below grade level narrows the gap significantly, that’s success. If a gifted kid who often complained about how slow things were going in the class and was snarky to others who were not so bright, starts to be friendly and helpful to those she scorned, that is the ultimate success. Actually, all these instances of personal success help to make the classroom a community.

Readers also contributed comments via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Margaret, Maurice, Heather and Howie, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, there will be plenty of space to include them in a future post.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.