Staff Culture and Climate
By: Jessica Huang
There has been a lot of discussion in education circles and mainstream media about how to hold teachers accountable.
Do we fire teachers whose students don’t do well on standardized tests?
Do we reward teachers whose students do better?
Should we give teachers a curriculum to teach, including a script of what to say to their students? Or better yet, perhaps we should mandate a policy and curriculum that has worked at one school for all the schools in the district/county/state so we can make the same gains.
Real accountability comes from first being accountable to families and students. Real accountability also comes from making teaching a public act — being explicit to teachers, students, and families about what good teaching looks like. When teachers are fired because test scores aren’t high enough we only drive skilled people from the profession. When we script a teacher’s curriculum, we remove all individual accountability and authority. Teachers can say, “I followed the script” even if the curriculum is out of context or completely ineffective for their students. When all stakeholders of the school community can reach a consensus of how to describe and define good teaching and good curriculum, when we make classrooms public spaces, and create spaces for student-centered feedback to teachers, we raise the bar for everyone.
What you will often hear at June Jordan School for Equity is that teachers love their job, and this work, although tough and challenging, is work that they want to be doing. At June Jordan, there is a collective drive that even on the worst of days, gives folks an energetic boost to their challenge of the moment. This helps staff at June Jordan see a dilemma as not their personal mountain, but as the community’s dilemma, and in that way it becomes something that many people come together to help solve,.
At June Jordan, every staff is challenged to be the best they can be every day. An important part of this philosophy is that we do not ask students to do things that we do not participate in ourselves. For example, if students need to see failure as a learning experience, then teachers also see failure as a learning experience. If we ask students to work in groups, collaborate, and help others, than we expect our staff to work together, collaborate, and help others. If we expect our students to be able to mediate conflicts and communicate well with each other, we expect our staff to mediate conflicts and communicate well with each other.
Before each school year starts, our entire staff attends a two-day retreat. Not only do we gather to talk about big picture vision and discuss philosophy of education and instruction, but we eat together, play together, and laugh together. The quality and nature of all these interactions creates a positive foundation and feeling of camaraderie among the entire staff. We introduce various rituals and techniques that help our productivity serve us in the goals that we have and do not continue meetings, committees, and rituals that no longer serve our school’s development at the time. Schools are organizations that grow organically, based on the newness of the staff, the synergy of staff to work together well, and the new initiatives that are planned for the next year. All three of these factors have large impacts on how a staff needs to be supported from year to year.
Many of us have experienced school climate where adults in the school treat each other just as badly, if not worse, than young people. A climate of mistrust develops that results in feelings of disenfranchisement among the staff and the administration – closed doors, whispers, eye rolls and lack of enthusiasm. Many times, this climate which is borne from a cycle of oppression, results in poor education for children, activating a compulsive downward cycle of more top-down control, restrictions, and micro-management in the teaching staff. It’s a wonder that the UBC (union-building committee) is where many teachers go to feel supported in their school, and not to the administrators whose job it is to support and empower teacher to build capacity to be the best educator they can be. When teachers are well-supported and empowered to be the professionals they are, when they are asked to contribute and take responsibility and leadership roles, when they are consistently challenged and supported to take on the next phase of school development, then they will and are fully qualified to lead in amazing ways.
The classroom is the center of the school. It is the place where the most interaction takes place between adults and students. It is where students develop growth or fixed mindsets. It is where confidence is built or torn down. School leaders need to see the capacity-building of staff as the number one thing that can change culture and solidify a school’s vision. When teachers collaborate together to develop the best lesson plan for students, something magical happens in the classroom and to the teacher and students. This magic is what we hope to capture through the Art of Social Justice Teaching.