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Three Approaches to Transforming School and Classroom Culture

Create a School Culture that Cultivates Hope

By Cathleen Beachboard

When thinking about large-scale challenges in schools—from teacher shortages to rising anxiety and stress levels—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Schools often seek transformation by turning to new initiatives or strategies from outside sources to spur change.  However, positive psychology researchers suggest that cultivating hope can be incredibly powerful in such situations: spurring organizations toward positive outcomes (employee wellbeing, retention, achievement), even when things seem stressful or uncertain. The greatest news? Hope already exists in every school building, and it’s only a matter of tapping into its potential. 

In 1991, positive psychologist Charles R. Snyder and his colleagues developed Hope Theory. According to their theory, hope consists of a person’s goals, agency, and pathways. Put simply: hope involves the will to reach a goal and different ways to get there.

The hope of an organization to reach new goals and the power to transform is fueled not by looking for what isn’t working but by building on what is.

Snyder and Feldman (2000) recommended promoting hope by setting up work environments to maximize a worker’s sense of belonging and ability to pursue meaningful goals. So how can schools maximize belonging and promote hope to staff to set and reach new goals? One simple way to boost hope in schools is by creating a Staff Strengths Directory. 

Due to how schools are structured, many staff members work in isolation or interact with a limited set of people. A Staff Strengths Directory provides a pathway to access the strength of individuals in a school building and promotes hopeful collaboration. 

The Directory is a tool that can be created through a simple Google Form (like this) that allows individual staff members to reflect on and list their skill sets along with any programs and tools they’ve mastered. Once information is collected, leaders can put the directory of strengths out to the whole building to promote collaboration for goals and problem-solving.

For example, one teacher may struggle with behavior management. Instead of going it alone, they use the directory and notice a colleague who lists that they have certifications in applied behavior analysis and behavioral interventions and supports. Typically, the two wouldn’t talk since one teaches math and the other art, but the directory provides a pathway to bring staff together to utilize the strengths inside the school.  

It’s a simple way to validate the expertise of staff members and communicate to staff the strengths within a building. By utilizing an asset-based hopeful lens like with the Staff Strengths Directory, schools can isolate strengths to foster. True school transformation doesn’t need to come from new initiatives. Transformation can simply come from using hope to tap into the assets of a building to help schools become stronger versions of themselves.

Improve School Culture by Increasing Supports for Teachers

By Debbie Silver

The heart and soul of every school reside in the individual classrooms. The power for inspiring lifelong learners and compassionate citizens lies in the hands of teachers. It is time to elevate teacher education programs, raise teacher salaries, improve teaching conditions, and make the profession desirable enough that the best and brightest of college graduates vie for coveted teaching jobs so that recruitment can be more competitive and selective.    

Once teachers are recruited, they need to be hired as interns for a year to work alongside effective veteran teachers who help them gain firm grounding in how to establish proven classroom management techniques, how to create positive connections with students and their families, and how to maintain a healthy work/life balance. New teachers should be guided by mentors for as long as needed. The current tenure system should be replaced with regular, reasonable evaluation and recovery systems lead by school administrators and teacher leaders.

Professional development must be personalized, specific, action-oriented, and ongoing. Teachers in the United States need more paid time to plan, collaborate, observe other classrooms, and prepare lesson materials during the school day. Non-teaching tasks (bus duty, cafeteria monitoring, etc.) can be handled by non-certified staff and parent volunteers to free up time for teachers to do the work they need to do independently or with colleagues during the school day. More attention to developing successful teaming strategies among all the adults at school is imperative to revitalizing our school cultures. All faculty and staff need focused time and attention for developing their social-emotional skills.

Students need to learn that the adults at school are on their side and will give them every reasonable chance to succeed. It is essential to leave no doubt that the qualified, respectable adults at school are in charge.

Create a Culture of Collaboration with Universal Design for Learning

By Lee Ann Jung

Historically, there’s been a clear divide in roles among classroom teachers and special educators. The pattern across nearly all schools has been this: curriculum design and classroom instruction have been the responsibility of classroom teachers, and IEP development and intervention have been the responsibility of special educators. Excellent instruction was delivered, and students who had IEPs were given additional support by a special educator. There’s been a pervasive “your students/my students” culture.

With universal design for learning, though, the goal is for instruction to be so accessible and effective that less intervention and “special” support is needed. This approach to curriculum design challenges us to take fantastic lessons we have planned and intentionally make them even more engaging, effective, and filled with choices—a task that spans all job titles. Universal design for learning offers the potential, and pressure, to see curriculum design, classroom instruction, assessment, intervention, writing goals, and designing accommodations and modifications as all being responsibilities of all faculty. 

No educator has all the answers for any group of students. And every educator has brilliant contributions to make! Classroom teachers have a wealth of experience and expertise in strategies that are a part of UDL. They scaffold, deliver content in multiple formats, design accommodations, and on and on. And special educators have so much to offer in how to embed features and practices within a lot of IEPs and embed those into lessons and daily routines. This collaborative effort benefits all students, not only those who have IEPs. You’ve no doubt experienced benefits as an adult from universal design. Have you found benefit in closed captioning? In metaphors and analogies? In choices about your learning? 

A universally-designed climate requires a reimagining of faculty roles. It’s not possible to see the promise of universal design for learning without this transformation.

Collaborative design, coaching, and consultation not only offers direct benefit to students; it’s a way of being that builds our capacity as adults.

We are continually engaged in problem solving and learning from each other’s best. The first time any of us learns a new strategy, we may have questions or need coaching. The 25th time, we probably forget not using it. The best professional development is natural, learned in situ, by watching and talking to other teachers.

This blurring of the lines of faculty roles is a significant change for most schools and can involve both cognitive shift as well as formal redefining of written responsibilities and even schedules. But this change work is transformative to outcomes. When we establish this ethos of collaborative design among faculty, the benefit to all students, regardless of strengths and needs, is clear. We know we’ve done the right work and are compelled to keep pushing toward ever-increasing, universally effective instruction.  

References

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 

       249–275. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli1304_01 

Snyder, C. R., & Feldman, D. B. (2000). Hope for the many: An empowering social agenda.

       In C. R. Snyder (Ed.), Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications (pp. 389–           412). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012654050-5/50023-3

Written by

Cathleen Beachboard is the author of The School of Hope: The Journey From Trauma and Anxiety to Achievement, Happiness, and Resilience. After adopting five children out of a case of extreme abuse and neglect, she has been on a mission to improve outcomes for those who experience trauma and anxiety. Cathleen has taught middle school English for the past 15 years. She also works as a part-time researcher holding an M.A. in Psychology.

Dr. Debbie Silver is a humorist, consultant, and retired educator with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, staff development facilitator, and university professor. She is the author of the bestselling books Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 (2021); Teaching Kids to Thrive (2017); and Deliberate Optimism (2014).

Dr. Lee Ann Jung is founder and CEO of Lead Inclusion, a small company that provides professional trainings, courses, and consulting to teachers and schools. She and her team provide support to schools in the areas of universal design for learning, inclusion, intervention, and mastery-based assessment and grading. Lee Ann is the author of eight books, including the new release Seen, Heard, and Valued: Universal Design for Learning and Beyond.

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