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Classroom & School Culture: Why some things work one place and not another

Going in and out of schools and classrooms in different areas of the country has made one simple premise real to me: Context matters. I appreciate that there are lots of things that all kids (really all people) need; safety, love, and support are chief among them. But the shape those ideas take when rooted in a school depend on a variety of local factors. In a push to standardize education, we sometimes hear things that approximate “All kids need the same things, so they can all be delivered in the same way,” but this misses the most salient truth about education—it’s a human endeavor. Your kids are not my kids, and I am not you. We can’t implement the same exact curriculum in the same precise way because we are not robots.*

That’s actually a really beautiful thing about this profession. There is artistry in teaching; we use myriad styles, we have various ways of phrasing our thinking, and we admire a wide spectrum of characteristics in our kids. These differences aren’t bad; they’re actually the foundation for why some kids click incredibly well with certain teachers and build relationships that extend beyond the year and beyond school walls. They’re why building relationships in schools is so important. When we see teachers, in our own schools and others, we should admire the work that they do. I’ve found it’s hard to enter someone’s room and not be struck by interesting and thoughtful choices they make and wonder what my own version of those choices might look like. But it’s a critical step to insert “my own version” into that thought process (even if I’m just in the room next door working under the same supervisor). Let me share an example from my own practice to elucidate this point: The teacher down the hall worked with (roughly) the same group of students that I did. She had a tight process for having students hand in their work so she immediately knew whose work was complete, incomplete, or missing. She then had a system for e-mailing the families of students whose work wasn’t yet done before the end of the day so that everyone was clear about what needed to happen and by when. I really wanted to try this, and I attempted to do exactly what she did. But I failed to see that I have a different way of being with my students, and they wanted to talk to me (at length) about what got in their way. That’s not bad, but it hampered my ability to efficiently collect work. Then, when I sat down to e-mail families, I wanted to also include positive notes about what I’d seen from those kids lately. I’m not saying that I couldn’t alter what I was doing to be much more like this other teacher, but I do know that it didn’t feel like me. It didn’t fit. And on further reflection, that’s because the systems we build aren’t just about efficiency; they are also about power. The dynamic that the teacher down the hall built with her students was different than mine, and it used a different power dynamic. When I tried to take on her process, what I didn’t realize was that I was also engaging her stance on authority and enacting her way of loving and supporting students. I didn’t realize how my relationship with students, and my own take on classroom power, would show up in a seemingly routine process. Unique school cultures, differing community and family expectations, variations in values and priorities, and different ways of sharing power exist in every school and in every classroom. This is partially why one school can’t just adopt a policy of another and expect it to work in the same way. How any school communicates safety, love, and support will be distinct; it’s a reflection both of values and of relationships. This isn’t to say that there’s one right answer. If anything, because of the number of places we’ve been able to see in the past year, I know that each school and classroom is on its own path. But this is to say that the relationships we craft and the power we hold or give to others shows up in the most unexpected places. As you head full steam toward the end of the school year, I encourage you to take some time to consider the dynamic you foster with your students. How can you consider the most local context (your classroom) and end the year in a way that validates and dignifies all of the people you work with most closely?

Do you want a thought partner in this work? Reach out to us; we’d love to help! *Note: We also can’t do this because schools and districts are funded very differently from each other, even when those districts are mere miles apart. Schools don’t have access to the same materials. Images by


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