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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Develop a Culture of Success in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 07, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

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?

Today, in Part One of this series, educators Jeffrey Benson, Christopher Lehman, and Barbara Blackburn share their responses.

You might also be interested in listening to a ten minute conversation I had with Chris and Heather Wolpert-Gawron (whose written response will appear in Part Two) on my BAM! Radio show.

There will be plenty of space for reader suggestions in this series, so feel free to send in your ideas.

Many educators have contributed responses to this question, so I won’t take up much room with my own thoughts, but I’ll share just a few words and include a number of links where readers can find additional related information.

I think a “universal” perspective that we can take to promote a positive school culture is one of prioritizing assets instead of deficits, relationships rather than tasks, and support over punishment.

We can apply this perspective with students by helping them develop Social Emotional Learning Skills and intrinsic motivation so that they might be more inclined to see school success as critical to achieving their own goals.

Teachers can incorporate this vision by having supportive working conditions, which include not having their jobs depending on student test results, receiving useful professional development on student engagement strategies, and being in schools where their leadership abilities are acknowledged and encouraged. It’s important for us to remember, as the saying goes, that “teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”

And we can all remember that schools are neighborhood institutions that belong to the community at-large. By utilizing parent engagement activities and viewing families as allies, we can magnify the positive impact we can have on our students.

And now, to my guests:

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is an educator, international speaker, consultant and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including his newest Falling in Love with Close Reading . He can be reached on Twitter at @iChrisLehman or his blog ChristopherLehman.com:

Any engagement challenges in our classrooms stem from the need of every child and young adult to feel safe and smart. If either of those conditions are missing then students (and adults) will develop coping mechanisms aimed at returning to feeling secure and self-confident:

Avoidance - staying away from the person or activity that makes you feel insecure. Think about your adult life: Going to the gym? A move to a new position? Asking that person out on a date? When a student refuses to do classwork it’s often not that they simply want to defy.

Redirection -- overemphasizing what makes you feel good to diminish the things that don’t, such as being a jokester or appearing tough. When you feel insecure at a party you might tell jokes even though you are dying inside. Some kids will act tough in class to hide their feelings of failure.

Depression -- turning anger or disappointment against ourselves. For some children and adults it feels safer to make oneself feel bad then to allow other situations or people to.

As well as others.

One key to changing the culture of the classroom or school is recognizing that whatever students present on the surface is really just the surface, we need to look beyond behaviors to causes.

Researcher John Hattie raises a compelling point about student achievement: that when we view students’ work not as a reflection of them but as a reflection of ourselves achievement grows. I find that empowering, that we can--even when it feels hard--adjust and revise our instruction to quite literally change how students learn and work.

Here are a few ways that some schools have done just that:

Plan with students as your curriculum, not programs or pacing guides. Nothing puts up a larger roadblock to learning then work that is so easy that it feels pointless or so hard that you cannot even begin to approach it. Be okay with revising the curricular materials you have in order to accommodate your learners.

Develop ways of seeing your students’ strengths and needs more clearly. For instance, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project suggests that if you are going to teach a unit of study, before you begin have students show you what they already know. About to teach them to write literary essays? Have them write one first. It is such a simple structure that gives you a wealth of information on what they already do well and what needs to be taught next.

Have lots and lots and lots of VERY interesting books to read. In school after school around the country, some even with dangerous behavior problems, when a huge effort is made to fill classrooms with libraries of books that are current, in great condition, engaging, reflective of students interests, and accessible, a remarkable shift happens in not just the ELA room but in the hallways as well. When choice reading becomes a part of the culture of your school kids see themselves as valued. I think these shifts happen because reading is cathartic, reading allows for academic and social conversation, and reading is at the heart of every subject area. Also, when students are applying your teaching to their own books it offers you yet another way of seeing their strengths and needs.

Compliment. More often and more specifically. Any new behavior, any new habit, takes tremendous effort. Think of all the habits you have failed to make or break. One big motivating factor is supportive feedback. Aim to, as Peter Elbow describes, catch kids on the edge of greatness. Find even the small thing that is a huge new step for them. Then point it out specially and make a big enough deal that they know it matters to you. I have been in classrooms where the rowdiest middle schooler suddenly goes into deeply focused work, just because we took three minutes to talk with her and compliment specifically some of her work.

Yes, a lot of these approaches are hard at first, but changing a child’s outlook on themselves and their education is hard. Also, is worth it.

I am so glad you are asking this challenging question, because it means you are already on the path to improving your students’ lives. Thank you for all you do.

Response From Jeffrey Benson

Jeffrey Benson provides support to schools that work for all their students. He is the author of the ASCD book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching The Students Who Challenge Us Most. His co-written curriculum, “Dialogue: Skills for School and Community” can be downloaded at his website, LeadersAndLearners.org:

Regarding your classroom culture, remember that you do not control the students, so be in control of what you can:

• In each class, make an effort to have a connection with each student. Greet each by name. Shake their hands. Ask them how the day is going. You build relationships and trust moment by moment.

• Keep your enthusiasm during lessons by focusing on those students who are trying their best. The vast majority of students want school to work for them; invigorate yourself by keeping the majority of attention on them in class.

• Respectfully invite students to join in. When asking questions, preface them by saying, “I want everyone to think about this for 15 seconds and then I’m asking Fred, Darlene, and Alonso what they think. If you have no response, say, ‘Pass” and I will move on.” This is a respectful way to invite more students into a lesson without shaming them by cold calling, to prove that they were not paying attention. Never shame students. Instead, provide a heads-up.

• When addressing students not on task, in Ruby Payne’s words, use your adult voice: reflective and sincere. Don’t lecture, cajole, warn or dismiss with irritation and frustration.

• Speak to off-task students as individuals, not all at once, not as a united group. Break through their indifference student-by-student: “I think there is something in this lesson that you in particular will find interesting;" “When you are ready to work, I’ll help;" “Thanks for not disrupting the students who were doing the lesson. I really appreciate that, and hope you will work more tomorrow.”

• Your class can be an island of respect, with the persistent hope that each individual will find a way to join in. To do so, you have to be in this for the long run. It may take 100 repetitions of your approach to make breakthroughs with some students; most will take fewer repetitions. Your work is building the endlessly welcoming classroom culture that allows each of them to take the step to join in.

• Celebrate your own small successes, student by student.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

This might be a schoolwide issue. Can a group of faculty meet with your principal and/or leadership team to discuss the issue? It’s important to remember not to approach this negatively or like you are telling the principal what he or she is doing wrong; focus on the negative impacts of learning.

Next, discuss several alternatives for improving the situation. For example, in my school students didn’t mind being suspended--they enjoyed being out of class. So we met with our administrators and came up with an alternate plan. In our case, if a student misbehaved at a high level, our principal called the parent in and the parent had to attend class with the student. In my classroom, after attending class, the parent was quick to tell her son this would not happen again--she wouldn’t miss a day of work because he wouldn’t do what I said. She supported me and that made the difference in the situation. That may not work for you--it did for our situation. Another idea we used was that if students misbehaved, they had to attend lunch detention. Because they didn’t want to miss time with their friends, they were more likely to behave.

Then, with full administrative support, you need to implement the ideas. Remember, it will take a long time to see a difference--for us it took ½ year until students took us seriously about not letting them out of their classwork due to discipline issues. You’ll also want to get as many teachers on board as possible ( one that isn’t as easy as it sounds). Everyone will need to be on the same page and be accountable for following through--even when it’s not easy or when it takes more work (such as taking your turn at lunch detention duty).

Finally, I think there are some bigger issues with social promotion that simply can’t be dealt with in a blog entry. I’m a big fan of a “not yet” grading system--until work is done at an acceptable level, it’s not yet complete, and the student doesn’t get credit until it’s done. Students must work before and after school (and during designated school times that do not interfere with other classes) to complete the work. It builds a huge accountability portion into your school, and you might or might not have the culture to begin this conversation yet.

Thanks to Chris, Jeffrey and Barbara 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and it’s Jossey-Bass’ turn now..

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Watch for Part Two in a few days....

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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.