Video

Preserving School Culture: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and the Realities of Wilful Blindness

29 Aug

I’d love to be a principal at some point in my career. Yes, there! I said it!

But, well before then, I hope to deepen my understanding of school culture, and strengthen my skills in leading and developing cultures. A school belongs to its community, and people make communities – people with energy, curiosity, humour, compassion, hopes – all of them individuals. So too, they may carry with them fear, insecurity, disappointment, anger, worry, regret, or shame.

We all know what works when it comes to school culture: we strive to establish a positive, nurturing, and inclusive school culture.

There are a number of common characteristics I’ve noticed amongst communities (school communities or otherwise) that are distinctly positive, nurturing and inclusive of the people within them.

One of those is a deeply entrenched intolerance of behaviour that erodes the established culture.

The same could be said for communities whose culture is a negative one – there’s often a strong protectiveness of the status quo: challengers, boat-rockers, and whistle-blowers are seen as a threat, and their influence is swiftly and brutally removed.

I was told in my first year of teaching, by my school’s Head of Students, that managing the incoming Year 7 cohort was a full-time job in itself.

Why?

Because behaviour expectations had to be so clearly articulated, and so consistently reinforced, in order to preserve the established school culture.

One child can influence a few; the few then influence the majority; the majority establish group norms and a cohort culture that, once in place, is challenging to reverse. Those Year 7s become Year 8s, who then model the negative culture (and behavioural norms), and before long, what started as a ripple in the ocean results in a seismic shift in school culture.

My colleague mentioned to me that one of the most effective strategies in encouraging Year 7s to understand and adopt the school’s positive and well-established culture, was encouraging each of them to ‘own it’.

This meant explaining the school’s expectations, codes of conduct, required behaviours and so on (we called this the ‘Woodleigh Way’), while urging all students to stand up and speak up when they see something that does not fit with the Woodleigh Way.

Of course, I nodded. I understood. If everyone speaks out against negative, damaging, and exclusionary behaviour, the behaviour will be stamped out.

But oohhhhhhhhh, what a task that is!

I tried again, and again, and again, and again, with a number of socially influential students, to little avail. Many of these students brought issues to my attention, so it’s fair to say they’d already taken ownership of the school’s culture. I’d try my best to model it myself. I’d encourage them to ‘step up and lead’. I would explain to them the reasons why behaviour wasn’t acceptable, and why maintaining the Woodleigh Way was so important. Virtually all of them agreed with me.

Still, these compassionate, kind, intelligent, perceptive, influential young minds watched behaviour go unchecked. They chickened out.

And it turns out, as do almost all of us.

I stumbled upon this brilliant clip from Ted Talks. In it, CEO and author Margaret Heffeman, speaks of ‘Wilful Blindness’, who does it, what it looks like, and the kind of person who stands up against it.

Do you think this video would encourage students to stand up and speak out?

Bye for now,

The Bean.

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