Tag Archives: school culture

Tick, Tock: Nausea, Cold Sweats and Nightmares: School Begins in a Week

“Tommy, get up, you’re going to be late to school.”

“I hate school, I’m not going.”

“It’s the first day, you have to go.”

“The kids don’t like me; the teachers hate me and make fun of me.”

“Tommy, you have to get up and go to school, you’re the principal.”

Monday morning principals will be gathering for a meeting with their superintendents.  Some will be bubbly and evanescent, others, aloof.  The supe will praise the principals for raising state test scores and single out a few for special kudos. I spoke with a long time principal.

I can’t wait for these meetings to end. Everything is scripted; I learned not to ask questions, questions are construed as criticism. We have a top down system with no input from the field, I’m expected to salute and carry out orders. My kids struggle to pass regents exams and I’m expected to schedule Advanced Placement classes. I understand we all must accept kids with social and emotional problems; however, without accompanying services, how can I help the kids. Education by press release is not education.

Principals are not happy.

For teachers, another year.

Elementary school teachers will be arriving in a few days, a week before they are required to attend. It takes to few days to set up a classroom, cloths lines with geometric shapes, word walls, bulletin boards, checking out books and supplies: getting the classroom perfect for that first day of school.

Some schools will hold retreats, a full day of schoolwide planning. Setting up google.doc sites or drop boxes so teachers can share lesson plans and student work; a principal distributes the school schedule, “Any questions? Anything we should change?”  Building a team means distributive leadership, changing one schedule impacts another teacher; teachers must learn to resolve potential conflicts and problems. English teachers always discuss/debate the books for the school year, the assignments, and all grades and subject areas create a calendar of lessons, arranging for common planning time, and, curriculum maps.

A new teacher gets a call from an experienced teacher, “Hi. I understand you’re joining us; we’re on the same grade, let’s get together and plan together.”

For the school leader creating a collaborative and nurturing environment is crucial – schools are defined by the culture of the school.

First year teachers, mid-career and senior teachers must feel valued.

Whether the school is a Renewal School struggling to survive, a high functioning school or one of the hundreds in the middle culture defines schools.

A few principals in Brooklyn will hand out a list of bars that have special Happy Hour prices for teachers.

Some principals will warn teachers that just because scores jumped this year scores will have to jump again next year, an implied threat, others will begin by congratulating a teacher who became engaged, welcoming back a teacher from maternity leave – creating that nurturing culture.

A cluster of male teachers in a serious conversation around a computer: checking an education website? No – setting up the football pool.

For school leaders school opening is a series of typical crises:

  • An email from a teacher, “I’m not returning.” A last minute vacancy.
  • Budget questions that you thought were resolved last year – you have to make last minute budget cuts.
  • Kids show up with paperwork; they want to register, they’re all overage and years behind in test scores.

School climate and school culture are different qualities. Unfortunately as I visit schools, sadly, I don’t find enough  productive climates and cultures; in fact, too often I see toxic cultures; too many schools with adequate test scores and schools in which “bitching” and complaining is commonplace.

The principal who I referenced above:

I do what’s best for my kids and teachers, I learn how to navigate the system, I keep my head down, I ignore stupid rules, I don’t want any articles about my school, we have a great school and we know it. I measure my success by the comments from students as they succeed in high school and beyond.

Welcome to the 2016-2017 school year.

Gangs and Schools: Should School Leaders Try to Eradicate Gang Cultures or Use the Leadership Qualities of Gang Members?

… hundreds of police officers swept into the Grant and Manhattanville housing projects in Upper Manhattan and arrested scores of people suspected of belonging to three warring street gangs …

Since June 2010, Manhattan prosecutors have dismantled 11 street gangs in East Harlem, winning convictions against scores of young people, most of them on conspiracy charges. (NY Times, June 4, 2014

The police are doing their job; arrest the “bad guys,” the criminals, gang members involved in crimes ranging from murder to drug distribution to street crime, as well as aliening kids at the fringes of gangs. The deeper question is whether a few months down the road the gangs will be reformed. Are urban gangs and Afghan tribes similar? Months after the US military rids a village of Taliban control the Taliban slowly reclaim the villages.

The military in Afghanistan has used brute force, from air strikes to drone strikes to the use of Special Forces combined with building schools for young women, drilling wells and developing “relationships” with village elders, yet, a dozen years later the feudal leaders seem determined to reject Western values for the millennium-old values of their tribal, patriarchal, misogynistic society.

The governmental responses to urban street gangs appear equally frustrating.

In Afghanistan children are born into their tribe or clan, in our nation kids choose to join gangs and there is a wealth of research on why kids join gangs.

The gangfree.org site offers reasons why kids join gangs and offers advice to parents.

* A Sense of “Family”
* Need for food or money
* Desire for protection
* Peer Pressure
* Family history or tradition
* Excitement
* To Appear Cool

The Denver District Attorney proposes a similar list,

There are different reasons for different kids.

• Some are drawn by parties, girls and drugs.
• Some are looking for respect and power.
• Some find a feeling of caring and attention in a gang. It becomes almost a family to them.
• Some want to make money—to help out at home or to have nice clothes, etc.
• Some join for self-protection because they are picked on by other gang members.
• Some grow up in a neighborhood where it is almost a way of life.
• Most have some real or imagined problem at home that makes them prefer the streets.
• Some gang members are addicted to drugs. The problems at home can become worse because parents don’t know how to cope with their addiction

Psychology Today also explores why kids join gangs and offers parents signs if your kid is in a gang and what to do about it.

The underlying question is why gangs exist was explored by NYU Professor Pedro Noguero,

Most studies on violence in low income communities link violence and violent behavior to social disorder – the breakdown of community institutions … such as churches, schools, social organizations … the past role of the social institutions … was to impart values and create a basis for community cohesiveness, in areas where these institutions have broken down, only the family remains as an effective agent of socialization … in their absence families are left on their own to impart and maintain these values.

The progressive decline of the nuclear family … has contributed to the current state of social disorder present in most American cities … the added financial burden born by such families contributes significantly to the hardships endured by family members. Moreover, most studies on single parent households clearly demonstrate that such families are more likely to be impoverished, more likely to have children that drop-out of school or do poorly academically, and have a greater likelihood of dependence on public assistance, not only for the head of the household, but for future generations as well.

Available evidence suggests that violent behavior tends to increase when there is both an increase in social disorder and a decline in living conditions. Economically depressed areas that lack sufficient jobs and services are more likely to have high rates of violence than communities that have greater resources. While the correlation between poverty and crime is high, in recent times there has been resistance to the notion that the condition of poverty itself is responsible for high rates of crime … The tendency to blame the victims of poverty for their entrapment, has become the most popular and fashionable explanation of poverty, violence, crime, drug use and other social ills associated with the condition of poverty.

… several scholars have suggested that crime and violence are directly related to the absence of opportunities to achieve social mobility through legitimate channels. In many poor communities, the traditional avenues to mobility are inaccessible, either due to perception or the sheer lack of opportunity. Education and employment, the two routes that have most often been prescribed as the way out of the [ghetto], often lead to dead ends for aspiring young people. In light of this reality, young people are faced with four basic choices: they can conform – accepting the dead end job; they can escape – to drug or alcohol addiction; they can innovate – finding ways to circumvent the law to achieve personal goals; or they can rebel – rejecting the system that limits their opportunities.

The Gang Intel Unit of the NYC Police know a great deal about gangs, which building in which housing project is controlled by which gang, the leaders in each gang, smaller crews which spin off from gangs; however, the police are law enforcement. Decades of mayors, from Ed Koch to David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg have, to one extent or another concentrated on law enforcement and not addressed the underlying reasons of why gangs exist. .

Research tells us that living in gang-infested neighborhoods; communities which suffer from the traumas of violence have an impact on student learning.

New research shows the mere fact of being poor can affect kids’ brains, making it difficult for them to succeed in school.

Children living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to suffer traumatic incidents, like witnessing or being the victims of shootings, parental neglect or abuse. They also struggle with pernicious daily stressors, including food or housing insecurity, overcrowding and overworked or underemployed, stressed-out parents.

Untreated, researchers have found these events compound, affecting many parts of the body. Studies show chronic stress can change the chemical and physical structures of the brain.

School leaders and teachers must accept the kids that line up at the door – whether or not they are gang members. The effectiveness of school leaders varies widely.

Sitting at a building council the principals from the four schools in the building whined about the incessant fights in the building.

I asked, “Do you talk with the gang leaders?”

A principal responded, “Why would I want to do that?”

I thought, “Because they run your building.”

In another building a principal explained how he identified the gang leadership kids in his building, speaks with them every day, stays up to date on Facebook postings, and uses the influence of the gang leaders to avoid fights and keeps the school calm.

An outside evaluator asked a principal why he didn’t have an afterschool program in a middle school. The principal explained many of his kids pick up younger siblings in elementary schools and kids didn’t feel safe walking home alone – they wanted to walk in groups. The evaluator retorted, “That’s an excuse.” The principal was keeping his kids safe – the evaluator was clueless.

School leaders may have read all the right articles and books, may fully understand the “instructional shifts” and commit the Common Core to memory, if they cannot assure a safe school environment, act as a role model and mentor, lead a team of teachers, and, yes, use the leadership traits of gang members, they will not be successful.

Whether in tony suburban communities or the hardscrabble streets of the inner city building culture defines effective schools.

Unfortunately we can’t wave wands and eradicate poverty and gangs; we can create pathways to a better life for all kids whether or not they belong to gangs.

How Will deBlasio and Mulgrew Dance? The Complexities of Changing School and School District Cultures

Gotham Schools reports that Mayor-elect Bill will not make his chancellor selection until next week. The rumors that the Commissioner of Education in Finland is taking a crash English course are unsubstantiated.

To date the appointments of deBlasio have been vanilla, solid, professional choices; a police commissioner who knows New York with a sparkling resume and other choices that upset no one – no more Sandinista supporters.

The talking heads, the newspapers, the blogs all speculate: why the delay? Is it Farina? And on and on … Just remember: when Mayor Bloomberg selected Joel Klein the response was, “Who?”

After deB defeated Thompson, the union’s first choice, union president Mulgrew and deB bonded. Perhaps bonded is too meek a word- it was a lovefest, Mulgrew praising deB to the sky and deB praising teachers.

After January 1 the dance begins.

The mayor-elect must get off to a good start.

The somewhat stumbling beginning, not selecting a chancellor for weeks has led to endless idyll speculation. Why the delay? The delay has led to suspicions.

The soon-to-be mayor must consolidate/invigorate his core supporters: parents and teachers.


deB: “I am imposing an immediate freeze on co-locations of charter schools in public school buildings. I am asking the chancellor to establish guidelines outlining a co-location process that includes parents, establish a period for public comment- we hope to have regulations in place within sixty days.”

deB: “I am directing the chancellor to enter into discussions with the union – the Absent Teacher Reserve – called the ATR pool – 1200 pedagogical employees who rotate from school to school each week is a waste of taxpayer dollars. We will return these employees to full time teaching positions within license as expeditiously as possible.”

The Department of Education is a $24 billion corporation with 120,000 employees – making changes is like changing the direction of the Titanic – it takes miles to slow down and make changes in direction, and, beware of icebergs.

The new chancellor, whoever she is (don’t assume anything from the use of “she,” I use it to make up for decades of female deprecation), will have to change a culture (Read “How to change school culture,” here)

In the last decade, the education standards movement has taught us that policy change without cultural change is an exercise in futility and frustration.

The greatest impediment to meaningful cultural change is the gap between what leaders say they value and what they actually do. Staff members are not seduced by a leader’s claim of “collaborative culture” when every meeting is a series of lectures, announcements, and warnings. Claims about a “culture of high expectations” are undermined when school policies encourage good grades for poor student work. The “culture of respect” is undermined by every imperious, demanding, or angry e-mail and voice mail coming from the principal [or superintendent or chancellor]l. Leaders speak most clearly with their actions. When staff members hear the call for transformation from a leader whose personal actions remain unchanged, their hope turns to cynicism.

How many school and school district leaders stand on the stage and lecture teachers about making their classes more interactive? How many leaders warn about change, or else, i.e., school closings, staff changes, etc?

The next chancellor must both reflect the views and feelings of parents and teachers and well as lead. I was a guest at a School Leadership Team meeting – a teacher made a proposal that the team, parents and teachers, thought was a good idea. The principal responded, “I don’t think this is going to work, obviously I’m in the minority, convince me I’m wrong, make it work.”

I worked in a school-based management, school-based budgeting district, school budgets required signoffs from the principal, the parent and union leaders. The superintendent’s mantra: you can do whatever the school SLT thinks will work, if it doesn’t, it’s my way.

de Blasio, the new chancellor and the union president must work to create school cultures that both lead and respect the views of all stakeholders.

Sometimes we will “agree to disagree,” sometimes we will reluctantly agree to go along, other times we will all be on the same page. As long as we live in a culture of respect we can prosper.

Moving from a culture of conflict, a culture that encouraged grenade tossing to a culture of collaboration is akin to moving from a Yankee fan to a Mets fan – not impossible – really, really hard.

It was far easier to blast away at Bloomberg in meeting after meeting, to rip the soon to be ex-mayor in TV ads and union meetings, than to slow dance with the new guy.

Maybe we all need dance lessons.