Take a Second to Focus on School Culture — Do Our Kids Want to be at School?

Do you know that high schools by the hundreds are failing to keep students at school? Do you know why so many American school children have an attendance problem? Do you know that not all schools are welcoming and inviting spaces? Reality Check: Our kids don’t want to go to school.

Problem 1: Schools aren’t keeping students engaged and inspired. It should be our goal to educate the whole child in such a captivating way that he will be a positive member of our society for decades to come because that is what he was raised to be (at home and at school). “Train a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it.” That Proverb is still relevant! We have to push for amazing lessons and outstanding teaching. Let’s try to go for a Teacher-of-the-Year worthy lesson as much as we possibly can. Set your own goal for improving, but be constantly striving. I try to do something awesome in my classroom once a week because that’s where I’m at right now in my humanity.

As part of keeping students inspired, we have to educate the whole child with some powerful character education. We cannot continue to educate the mind and body alone. That is part of what is wrong with our society. We need to teach students to be charismatic, compassionate, and committed just as much they need reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Problem 2. Schools aren’t doing what’s necessary to make students want to be there. We have failed as a society to fully fund and/or fund all aspects of a school. We are going to have to use our money in the right places, and I think a small amount should be spent on things that make our kids want to be there. Why can’t they be rewarded some X-Box time at lunch? Or play a quick game of Uno? Why can’t school be fun? We have to throw in some brain breaks, movement, and socialization time. It makes the workers happier (myself included).

I’ll say this one more time. We will pay for how we educate these kids. We will either pay for it now building amazing institutions of learning that kids love or we will pay for it later by building more institutions of “justice.” We have to build schools into true learning communities where everyone has a place, and where each student grows mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.

We’ve got to remember the true mission of all of our schools. Education saves lives. It builds people; it improves our society; it elevates individuals. We’re losing too many of our young people to the streets — we must make education a positive experience if we want to change this land.

Problem 3. Schools have to become such an important facet of students’ lives that they feel they HAVE to be there. Students need to feel like their presence matters and their absence is felt. I try my best to tell my absent student that they were missed upon their return, and I expect them to follow up with me when I am absent (and the majority of mine do!). We have to make every day have something in it they want to be at, even if it’s something small like playing Sequence for a few minutes with an Awesome Community Mentor.

I recently overheard a conversation between a mother and her child in the front office lobby of our school. The mother was trying to make an eye doctor appointment for her teenager, and they were having difficulty finding a time when the child didn’t feel like she would miss something important at school. It went something like this.

Mom: What about Monday morning?

Student: No, we’re doing a project in Coach Harris’ class. I can’t miss it.

Mom: Tuesday afternoon?

Student: Are you kidding. That’s during HOSA. I can’t miss my club meeting.

As aggravating as it was for the Mom, I had a secret pleasure in eavesdropping. I was listening to the young lady complement all the times that she knew she just had to be at school. We have to transform all high schools into places our teenagers want to be! Every school has to work on this school climate issue. I am going to attempt to describe some practices that I have seen in schools that help make school the place to be. My own school has placed an emphasis on improving our school culture this year so allow me to also provide those anecdotes.

Strategy 1. Teach adults how to talk to students. Have you heard how some grown people talk to not-so-grown people and vice versa? When I see someone for the first time each day, I expect to greet them and be greeted. Sometimes that could also include a handshake, a fist bump, a high five, or a hug. I hope other people look forward to seeing me, and I try to treat people how I want to be treated. We have to talk to students the way that we want to be talked to, and we have to control our tone of voice as well. I know my students love it when I am loud with them, but they would hate it if I were loud at them.

Don’t you love the feeling you get when you see an enthusiastic person who is happy to be around? We need to give that and teach that to our children. I am trying not to be moody and worn out all the time! At the school where I work, there was an established custom of treating students and colleagues “like family” before I arrived there. I hope it will still be the Warren County Way long after I leave. When you’re family, you love each other, you lean on each other, and you learn from each other, but it all starts with how you first talk to others.

Mrs. Patton and one of our freshmen post for a picture during a house volleyball tournament.

Strategy 2: Have clear expectations for behavior for students. Teenagers need clear standards for behavior, and we have to stop being scared of words like “no” and “don’t.” Teenagers want to know exactly what they are allowed to do, and what is prohibited. They will test it right up to the “line.”

Last year, our school system began an initiative to send all of our teachers to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta for training. RCA is known for its school culture (among other things). After visiting RCA, several teachers read and/or discussed Ron Clark’s _The Essential 55_. Our superintendent then lead us in developing our 25 essential rules that we call The Warren County Way. They are specific, and our students were taught exactly what each one means. We also standardized discipline procedures in RCA style. Below you will see an abridged version of the Warren County Way, but each expectation has further expectations that explain the overall rule. The WCW has helped us be extremely clear to our students, and the common discipline procedures has helped make it consistent.

This is a copy of the parent and student handout on the Warren County Way.  The WCW was written by a team of teachers and administrators in our school system led by our superintendent Mrs. Carole Jean Carey.

Strategy 3: Use a house system or something similar to create a feeling of belonging. We have to make school a place where kids feel like they fit, like they matter. When students and teachers know they are important, they will put more into their work in school.

Warren County High did this by incorporating a school-wide house system similar to Ron Clark Academy and Hogwarts. We have four houses, and every student belongs to a house. Some of the students are also house Officers / House Leaders, our version of Precepts. Our teachers and staff members are also Heads of Household or House Parents. We spend at least thirty minutes once a week doing some Quality Time with our house. It has really helped everyone feel a connection to each other.

Our four Warren County High houses compete during a house chant competition.  Every child in our school participated in a tremendous show of a positive school culture.  You can see Coach Flo and I leading House Dabaysha.

Strategy 4: Incorporate competitions. Teenagers love to compete (and so do adults). If you want to make school fun, add some healthy competitions. Take the last ten minutes of lunch to have a Chubby Bunny contest or do a community service challenge by class. Play games to review instruction. Anything competitive is normally a hit.

My school has recently implemented a house system that has several competitions every month. We take 30 minutes on Fridays to play House Vs. House games. Our first game was Family Feud, then we played volleyball and badminton. Next, we will be designing house flags. Our students look forward to the special competitions on Fridays, and they make them want to be at school.

During homecoming week this year, we had events after school every day for our students to participate in.  We had more than half of the student body at our Powder Puff game and bonfire.

Strategy 5: Practice encouragement. This is a really hard one to do. It’s easy to say we want to encourage others, but really hard to actually do it consistently. Did you know there are five different ways to make someone feel loved? Gary Chapman’s _Five Love Languages_ argues that one of the ways we show others we love them is by using Words of Affirmation. Students need to be told Words of Affirmation as well.

We have been trying as a school to work on being positive and encouraging. We have some things still to work on, like losing or winning gracefully, but I would say we have all made major progress in how we speak to each other. One day, we were playing Kahoot in 4th block, and I noticed that one of my beautiful and smart young ladies had really been working hard all week learning her words. She was really trying in the game and was really wanted to win. Her house had been going through “hard times” and had not won much. We all felt happy that this young lady was winning for her house. Anyway, she wound up winning Kahoot because she had really worked for it, and when she did about half the class stood up and did her house chant for her (including me). That was a moment that made me realize our school is making progress with encouragement.

You have to require and teach students to be positive and encouraging. We saw this at Ron Clark Academy. We worked on ours by talking in depth about our behavior expectations every day. We EXPECT students to be positive, and we defined five rules to elucidate what students should and should not do to be positive. Our students bought the higher expectations and have really made us proud. We have to purposefully teach it though!

Coach Green and I lead House Dabaysha in our house chant.  You can also see Mrs. Patton, Coach Blount, and Coach Flo with our students because we are a family.

Strategy 6: Recognize student accomplishments regularly. Human beings like to be recognized. We like hearing our name praised. We are conceited like that. Some teachers have Students of the Week or Students of the Month, and I highly suggest it. We can also recognize smaller milestones likes tests, projects, and papers. Recognize students who have no tardies or no discipline referrals.

The students at my high school love being recognized on our school’s Facebook page. It is a BIG deal. We try to post something once a day about what are students are doing. It could be Academic Students of the Month, Character Ed. Students of the Month, what lessons students performed well on or just loved this week, community service projects, house news, and so much more. Recognize, recognize, recognize. Follow us @WarrentonSchools

These are our character education students of the month for Optimism.

Strategy 7: Teach students to be people of character. No, this is not the same as number two, which is discipline-focused. This goes above just being a good student to being a good person who will be a leader in our society.

You can teach students character by incorporating things like a Community Mentor Program, Character Education lessons, and adding student leadership opportunities on campus through clubs and houses. We also teach students character by how we respond to different things in school and in our lives. They are watching us!

Jakalah, our Dabaysha House Leader, and I were working hard to cheer on our house during the badminton tournament (that our house won!).

Strategy 8: Transform the school physically into a zone for creativity. For years I listened to lies about why schools would not paint their classrooms into real spaces for learning. I heard the same excuses over and over. “It’s cheaper to use one color.” Or the “We don’t want to change a classroom every time a teacher moves rooms or transfers schools.” Or the “Too much color overstimulates the brain.” Malarky! I believe in the psychology of color. When a place is important to you, you decorate it. You make it feel like home. You make it warm and inviting. You make it have a creative and inspiring energy.

This past summer, our school system began renovating classrooms. Each teacher chose a theme, and we changed our rooms to be centers for creativity. My room is Steampunk Chic in Coral Passion (my favorite color). It definitely has changed my attitude about my classroom, and my students love it. Their attitude changes when they enter the room.

This is part of my classroom that I transformed this past summer into a Steampunk Chic Literature classroom.  You can see Emily Dickinson, author silhouettes, and the Kraken.

Strategy 9: Make school a place the adults want to be. Here is some common sense for you — if adults don’t like the school they teach at, the kids won’t like it either. We have to help make teaching and facilitating teaching a fun and rewarding job for adults. Trust them as professionals. Let them shine. Show them that they are appreciated.

A few months ago, I read Ron Clark’s book _Move that Bus_, which is all about how to make an organization perform better. Clark’s message in the book is that we have to keep the metaphorical runners happy. I am lucky to be at a high school where we are all moving together in the right direction, but much of that is based on how we feel as educators. When teachers feel valued, they will do more than asked or expected.

This is an amazing group of educators.  As our House Chant says, “We go all out every day, all day!”  Pictured:  Coach Flo, Coach Blount, Mrs. Patton, Me, Mr. Lee, and Coach Green.

Strategy 10: Plan a #BestDayEver. This is actually my goal for one day this school year. I want to beg my principal and challenge my colleagues to pick a day where we will all teach an amazing out-of-the-box lesson, complete with some craziness and fun. I’d want to pick a theme that we all teach on that day. It would be cross-curricular and extremely engaging for our students. Let’s give students something to look forward to and be excited about.

When I was in middle school over twenty years ago, my teachers did a #BestDayEver where they each taught about the Maya Empire. In Math, we studied their use of the “zero” concept. In P.E., we played Mayan games. In every class, we learned something about the Maya, but all in one day. I’m thirty-five, but I can still remember that specific day of 6th grade. I am hoping to bring this strategy to my school sometime this year. Don’t you want to plan a #BestDayEver? Would that help students get excited about school?

When the teachers are excited, the kids will be excited as well!  Notice our Principal Ninja Trevor Roberson on the left.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on how to create a school that kids want to attend and how my school is working through this process. It’s time to make school the happiest place on Earth.

Educate, entertain, edify.

DKP

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