School culture is the life force of a school campus. It is one of the most underrated elements of a strong and successful school. Here’s what happened to school culture in the last few years and what we can do about it.
The students call it a “vibe.” Adults might use the word “ambiance.”
Schools have an “ambiance” and a “vibe” just as much as any other workplace. Is the campus clean or littered with trash? Are the students smiling or looking down at their devices all the time? Do teachers exude crankiness, or is there a pulse of positivity? Do people seem to feel essential or incidental to the school community?
In the best schools, there is a palpable electricity that can be detected by visitors. There is an energy, a benign sense that this is a place where extraordinary things can happen — it can be felt in the classroom, on the stage, or on the playing field. When I was in high school, everyone went to Friday night football games. Our academic and artistic teams were all competitive, or at least aspired to be. Rallies were eagerly attended, and class competitions bristled with urgency.
This didn’t happen by accident.
A school’s culture is a consequence of a number of variables, but almost all of them are anchored in fostering positive and meaningful relationships between the school’s staff and the students and their parents. It is the consequence of a vision that has been discussed from its inception all the way down to the finer points of its execution. It is making sure students and staff stay committed to praising what is praiseworthy and are crystal clear about those pesky old-school things called “expectations.”
The list of academic harms associated with COVID is too long to fully enumerate. But talk to American teachers and they will tell you one of the most obvious casualties of the past two and a half years was a transformation of school culture defined by potent levels of student disengagement. Events became poorly attended. Participation in after-school activities like sports and clubs atrophied. School dances and other events, even when they weren’t suddenly canceled or severely modified, felt flat and hollow. And who could possibly blame the students? COVID policies made a virtue of both disengagement and distance — some might say it was safetyism in excelsis.
More than likely, students simply got out of the habit of active school life — its rhythms, its expectations, and, yes, its occasional uncomfortable demands. Tell young people they can stay in bed all day, scroll on their phones during class, turn in work whenever they please, and take nothing but open-note tests and guess what will happen — they won’t want it to ever end. A system modeled on the world of Peter Pan might be great in the moment, but in the end, it results in a colossal degradation in school culture and the death of school spirit.
But to understand the gale of teacher departures, the 148% increase in resignations in the education sector, and the rock-bottom morale of American teachers, it is important to go beyond the annoyances and disruptions of these COVID years. For almost a decade, American schools have pivoted away from “zero tolerance” policies and embraced an alternative to suspension known as “restorative justice.” According to a Brown Center Report on American Education, restorative justice typically features a “meeting of victims, perpetrators, parents, teachers, administrators, and a counselor or psychologist. The goal is to get misbehaving students to take responsibility for their behaviors and the consequences that others have suffered.”
In short, have students take responsibility for poor behavior without suspending them.
To be clear, the rationale for this change of policy is well-intentioned. According to research in Education Next, excess suspensions are correlated to future rates of incarceration. Suspensions are disproportionately doled out to students of color, even when free and reduced meals are held as a constant variable. More suspension means alienation from a student’s learning community, resulting in lower performance. As much as progressivism is often associated with doe-eyed utopianism, this particular policy initiative is not.
But here is the problem: There is scant evidence that this new approach is improving school culture or academic performance. Of course, suspensions have decreased; but if the policy is a prima facie rejection of suspension as a legitimate first option, then that really isn’t saying anything. Having a policy that doesn’t suspend students and then celebrating when students aren’t suspended is about as silly as refusing to enforce the law and then celebrating when there are fewer arrests. As for academic performance, one study that focused on the use of restorative justice practices in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district found that “academic outcomes did not improve … and actually worsened for grades 6–8,” with certain subject areas and student groups more affected than others.
What about the students who are behaving and trying their best to get a decent education? Brookings Institute reported that “misbehaving students take a toll on the education of others. A 2014 report from Ofsted, the United Kingdom inspectorate of schools, estimated that each year, British teachers lose the equivalent of 38 days of instruction dealing with even low-level misbehavior.”
And what about the teachers? Asking educators to act as quasi-counselors and therapists — roles for which they are not trained and will not be trained for in just a few professional development sessions — is just the tip of the iceberg for why such policies are problematic. Furthermore, teachers are often asked to stop class for a disruptive student in order to implement these restorative justice practices. According to findings from a survey of teachers — and this should come as no shock — “sparing 20-plus minutes for circles to build community or respond to conflict in the classroom seemed an insurmountable challenge to some.”
Outsiders to the world of education — and even “reformers” who believe there is a magical and elusive policy elixir — are mistaken if they believe asking teachers to take on the brunt of civil society’s failures won’t have a pernicious effect on both their morale and the culture of a school. But here is the real issue at hand: We can agree to decriminalize, destigmatize, and uncouple poor behavior from serious consequences as much as we please, but if we refuse to talk bluntly about the need for better character, morality, and respect from our young people, then none of it will matter.
And our schools will be the worse for it.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California, and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.