values

10 Questions every school should ask to build healthy culture

Culture is often something that we talk about in education. Mostly we talk about building a “healthy” culture. Less often we talk about what that really means, and what it looks like, and how to do it.

It’s strange to me that something so fundamental to how a school runs gets so often overlooked. Or maybe it’s that we take for granted that it will just “be there.” Culture can just happen, but I would argue that it’s much better when it’s intentionally built. How do we do it? With so many different stakeholders in education, how do we truly build a healthy culture?

At Anastasis, our culture begins with students. Always. I know that every school claims this, but when we say that we start with students, I mean the actual students with names. When we talk about what we will look like, we talk in terms of the students in our school each year. Camryn. Dakota. Johnny. Kip. Bodie. THOSE students. We do it with them in mind. From there, we consider what it is that we want for those students. What is it that we fundamentally believe about them? What do we hope they will leave us with?

These are the 10 questions that we ask ourselves that inform our culture. Try beginning with these questions as a staff and see how the decisions you make together (and the culture you build) are transformed.

Question 1: What will we do here? This becomes our mission statement. 

What we will do: Apprentice children in the art of learning through inquiry, creativity, critical thinking, discernment, and wisdom. Provide an education model that honors and supports children as the unique and creative individuals they were created to be.

Question 2: Who will we be?

Who we will be: A close community of learners that includes students of all ages, parents, teachers, and support staff. A culture that values unique individuals and fosters a love of learning, curiosity, critical thinking and discovery. A community that strives to show each other love, acceptance, and respect through attitude and service. A school that focuses on each student’s individual needs by creating a customized learning strand for each individual. A school that connects with other learners around the world, developing global citizens. A community (staff included) that is passionately curious, willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. A school that utilizes the technology available to enhance learning. A staff that believes that learning happens within a student, not to a student. A place where learning is immersive, authentic, realistic, and connected. A place that goes beyond building self esteem to build self efficacy, learning with intent. A community of independent and resilient learners.

Question 3: How will we work?

How we will work: We will strive to serve students, to honor them as unique, creative individuals. Our interactions with students, families, and staff will be respectful and build trust. We will be learners. We will work toward a community and culture of respect, fun, and engagement. We will be fully alive. We will be creative. We will be curious. We will grow and evolve to meet the needs of students every day, month, and year.

Question 4: What will we value?

What we value: Freedom in learning. Getting our hands dirty, learning experientially. Play. Indulging our curiosities. Making mistakes and failing forward. Being open to other perspectives, views, and ideas. Independent thinking. Collaboration-connection is a multiplier. Being active. Learning without ceasing. Connecting dots (making connections within learning). Actively thinking about concepts (not just fact finding). Agility and spontaneity. Environment plays an important role in the learning continuum. Forward thinking pedagogy. Empathy and social compassion. Teacher as learners and learners as teachers. Humor and Lightheartedness. Tools that support learning. Being action researchers.

Question 5: What will we deliver?

What we will deliver: Students that are fully alive, who know their unique place in this world and know how their gifts and talents can be used to support a world that desperately needs their contribution. Passionate learners who have the ability and drive to spend a lifetime learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Question 6: What do we believe about achievement?

What we believe about achievement: It is complex and multifaceted. No one assessment can accurately measure it. It is individual. It is ABOUT and FOR the individual. It is fluid. It is boundless.

Question 7: What do we believe about learners?

What we believe about learners: Every child can learn. Every child has unique gifts and talents. Every child has a natural curiosity and an inclination to figure the world out. Every child learns in ways that are unique to them. Every child learns at their own developmental pace. Every child has an inclination to discover how the world works.

Question 8: What do we believe about personalization?

What we believe about personalization: We must be aware of student readiness-we want to present students with a task that is challenging for their current level of knowledge understanding or skill while providing a support system to bridge the gap. We must be aware of interest- linked to current student interests and helping the student discover new interests. We must be aware of learning preferences. We must be aware of the foundation-foundational knowledge and skills give us a strong base for new learning. We must help students discover new learning. We must vary the product or outcome that we expect of students in order for them to demonstrate understanding. We need ongoing formative assessment to drive new learning. We need to allow for flexible groupings so that students have a wide variety of opportunities to interact with a wide range of peers. We must emphasize individual growth and betterment of self instead of competition with others. We must partner together, taking advantage of other staff members strengths to support all students. We transfer ownership of learning from the adults to the students, a true apprenticeship. We must create flexible learning environments that meet the needs of a variety of postures of learning.

Question 9: Based on Questions 1-8, what will define our culture?

Our culture wil be: A place where all learners are safe to take risks. A place where students are encouraged to find answers from exploration and experimentation. A place where meaningful feedback is provided. A community where every student, staff and family member is part of the learning community. A place where we model persistence and talk about ourselves as learners. It’s okay not to know everything. A place where we set our eyes on what is possible and we encourage others to do the same. A place that is flexible, there is always more than one way to do something. A place where students develop empathy and fight their own battles. A place where the learning process can be “messy.” A place that takes into account student choice and preference. A place that helps students learn how to think, not what to think.

We will be intentional.

Question 10: Based on questions 1-9, what code will we live by?

The Anastasis Code: 

We take care of each other.

If someone needs help, we give it. If we need help, we ask.

It’s all a gift. (No complaining, no complaining, no complaining.)

There’s glory in making a mistake. (Mistakes are teachers.)

Make the kind assumption. (When someone behaves poorly, give them the benefit of the doubt.)

No skunking! (Skunks spray negative energy when they are afraid. Don’t be a skunk.)

Respect each other. (Look at the person talking to you. Make requests in the form of a question, not a demand. Don’t interrupt conversations already in progress.) 

 

Above all. We are a team. If the team isn’t healthy, nothing else can be. 

 

IMG_7564 2

Starting by asking and building around these 10 questions should inform EVERY other thing that you do. Everything matters. Everything reflects and indicates the culture that you have.

A few examples from Anastasis:

Announcing class placement for the year. Often schools send home a class placement list to parents. Kids anticipate class placement. This is a BIG deal to them. Why would we send a list to parents when we can unveil class placement and celebrate the unveiling with the students? We send out a balloon to each child with the name of the classroom teacher on the balloon. When the ballon gets blown up, the “team” they are on this year gets revealed. (We don’t call our classes by grade level, we call them by team name. Another small thing that reflects our culture. It all matters!)

Anastasis Academy class placement balloon announcement

Back to school night. Typically schools cram everyone into a hot room and give some sort of vision casting or announcements for the year. Then they break into classrooms so that parents can meet the teachers. Teachers go over classroom expectations. At Anastasis, we asked ourselves what one thing we want to accomplish so that by doing it, everything else in the year was made easier. Our answer: Build community. So, this year we sent out an invitation to our families. Pack a picnic. Meet us at a park. Every teacher hosts a blanket. Families and teachers get to know each other. We made up conversation prompts to add an element of fun and to take the pressure off of any introverts (i.e. me!) to get the conversation flowing. Not only do our teachers get to know our families better, the families also get to know the other parents in the class. We’ll toast the end of summer with a glass of champagne, give out all the same packets of papers we normally would, and cheers the start of a new school year.

Anastasis Academy Colorado Christian School

School handbook. Let’s be honest, like 2% of families actually read this important document. It’s low. It’s generally boring. Instead of just sending a community handbook (we do that, too). We also send postcards throughout the year that have just-in-time information from the handbook. The week before Learner Profile meetings, we send a postcard that talks about Learner Profiles. The week before snowy weather, we send a postcard that tells families where they can learn about a school closure. Just-in-time bite-sized information. Who doesn’t love getting a postcard?

Anastasis Academy Community handbook

Professional development: Do you do the same thing you’ve always done? Or do you focus on building community and culture. Here are some ways we’ve done PD: Paddle boarding, happy hour.

The first week of school: Is it jump right in? Or do you take time to get to know your students and “detox” them from false labels they may be carrying about themselves and learning?

The small things really aren’t all that small. It all matters. Without starting from the question framework above, it’s hard to make decisions consistently that will ladder up to the “healthy” culture you are trying to build. Start with the 10. Be intentional about all of it.

P.S. By going through these 10 questions, you’ve also created your staff handbook. Anastasis Academy Teacher Handbook

What is sacred in education?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

We hold certain beliefs about education because those who came before us set the ground work for how we operate schools. Those who came before us existed in quite a different reality of what it meant to be educated. At the dawn of industrialization, much of what we see in education probably made sense.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

In the last three months, I’ve led in the neighborhood of 300 teachers/administrators/district-heads through Anastasis Academy. They all come with a similar goal: they want to see how we personalize learning. Inevitably as I’m touring people through, they’ll exclaim over how articulate our students are in explaining what they are learning and the projects they are working on. They’ll show surprise over the way that our students are able to manage the freedom they are given to choose the “classroom” they will work in. They see it, and they still don’t always believe it works. We’ve been told that Anastasis is a “unicorn.” As our visitors talk among themselves, I can hear the “yeah, but…” Doubt creeps in. They try to make what they see at Anastasis fit the constructs they’ve already put into place.

Yesterday, I had a rare moment to jump into an early #edchat conversation on Twitter (spring break for the win!). The chat was about small class size and the way that changing the class size might change learning for the better. I had a lot to say about the positives that I see from having small class sizes. At Anastasis, our classes are capped at 12. One teacher, twelve students. Once again, I was met with awe…and again we became the “unicorn.” Many could see the benefits that come with smaller classes, but immediately pointed toward dollars being too tight to ever have hope of it being a reality. I can understand that viewpoint, with ever tightening budgets it is one that can feel too large to overcome.

When we started Anastasis Academy it was with no endowments, no grants, no private backers (unless you count the $160 I put in for a domain name, information night handouts, and establishing ourselves with the state of Colorado as a non-profit). Anastasis is a tuition funded school. Tuition is $9000 each year. I did not choose that $9000/year amount arbitrarily. I chose it because at the time, it was the per-pupil expenditure in the public school district where we started. I chose that number because I believe that the type of education that students enjoy at Anastasis should be available to ALL students, whether or not their family can afford a private education. I chose that number because I wanted to show that education CAN be different, and it isn’t really about money.

When we free ourselves from the perceived rigidity of the system that we are in, and begin with a clean slate, we are free to see things from new perspectives. Rather than trying to fit small class sizes into your current budget and system, try approaching the problem from a clean slate. I hear some of you “yeah, butting…” already. “Yeah, but we don’t have the luxury to start from a clean slate, we have to work in the system.”

Try this as an exercise.

It’s not meant to free you from the system, but instead to give you freedom in your thinking. By beginning ideation away from the rigid constructs, you may stumble onto an idea that you hadn’t considered before. It may give you just enough freedom to come up with a new approach that might just work in your system. The “yeah, but” statement puts a stop to the creativity, beginning with no constraints can lead to new ways of thinking and possibility. Instead of “yeah, but” try playing the “what if” game. What if none of these constraints were in our way? What if we could make decisions apart from the system we are in? What if we had a blank slate to dream up our perfect school? What if money was no object?

When beginning with a clean slate, I always like to begin with the non-negotiable. What do we value that we aren’t willing to compromise? What is impossible to do without? Begin with what you must have. When I went through this exercise, I found that what I value most is students-with-names. Kids who are unique individuals, and are treated as such, is central to all decisions that we make at Anastasis.

We begin with students with names.

Next: How do we support students-with-names? It’s been my experience that the best way to support students-with-names is not with a fancy new curriculum, new technology, or better standards; but by the people you surround them with. The teachers, those who will apprentice students in the art of learning. We empower teachers to be teachers. And so, our first decision is made. Teachers are non-negotiable. We have to find the best, for us this is defined as those who know how to build community, how to make students central to the learning process, those who are instructional designers and don’t rely on boxed curriculum, those that are empathetic and thoughtful.

Then: Where do we do this? A space for the learning to happen is important. We need a home base. It needs to fit our vision. It needs to be flexible. We also need to show students that learning doesn’t just happen within the four walls of our school. That it can happen anywhere, that there is always someone to learn from. And so, our second decision is made. We need a place to do the learning that fits our vision. We need a portion of our budget set aside to get students outside of the building once a week. We need them to be able to meet experts. We need transportation to make us mobile.

Finally: What will drive our learning? If we are valuing students-with-names, boxed one-size-fits-all curriculum no longer feels like a good fit. It doesn’t ladder up to support our non-negotiable. And so, our third decision is made. We will be inquiry based, we will help students think deeply, ask beautiful questions, problem solve, and chase learning. We will not put money into boxed curriculum, instead we will purchase only those books, experiences, resources, etc. that we need as inquiry unfolds. We will be agile.

The bulk of my budget at Anastasis goes toward those things I value most. I hire teachers first, lease the space that we learn in and learning-excursions/transportation second, and support inquiry with resources third.

As you dream, start with what is necessary. Then move on to what is desired (realize that you may be able to fill these wishes outside of your budget creatively- we are a 1:1 BYOD iPad school because it is the only supply on our supply list. For our families, it is more cost-effective to own the technology than to fill a list of school supplies each year. As a school, it is more cost-effective for us to purchase the typical school list for students than to own the technology). Finally fill in with what is left.

Do this with your colleagues. Dream together. Start with a clean slate. Use the improv ethic. In improv theater, the rule is that you go with what you are given. This usually consists of a fictional identity, a scene that is set up for you. Ground Rules: You can’t suddenly chuck the scene mid-speech. You can’t contradict lines fed to you by fellow actors…it will kill the scene because there will be nothing to say after it.

Try employing the improv ethic at your next staff meeting. Liberate yourselves by giving your minds a ground zero, clean slate, to begin thinking. Choose a problem that bothers you in education (class size is a great one!). Why does it bother you? Then, as an ideation experiment add a change to the scene and follow the implications of that change from one scene to the next. How does it change things for the budget? How does it change things for students? Parents? Teachers? In improv they teach this idea of “yes, and…” Solve the problem and look for a solution rather than implementing the “yeah, but…” that limits ideas and shuts down new thinking. Dream big. Dream without the limitations you might ‘know’ exist. As I said, in the process you may discover a solution or way around a very real limitation you wouldn’t have considered or come up with otherwise. In a very real way, this blog (Dreams of Education) did that for me. This was a safe place to have crazy dreams that ended up becoming a new reality. If you had asked me about starting a school 6 years ago, I would have adamantly told you that I would never start a school. That I didn’t even know the first place to start.

Try following your dreaming and thinking down a rabbit hole, giving permission for absurdity and silliness. This is often what the brainstorming and ideation phase of design thinking looks like. Often solutions grow out of what at first glance appears as absurd and impossible. Shut down the inner critic- suspend the naysayers and come up with something new.

What is truly sacred in education?

The incredible, creative, unique individuals that we call students.

That is sacred.

That is non-negotiable.