The greatest version of the grandest vision – Improving our school atmosphere
In the past 16 years since I stopped being a ‘formal’ teacher, I have had the pleasure and good fortune of visiting over 700 schools, mainly, but not limited to, the UK. They all vary greatly as you can imagine, but all of them share one thing in common, I knew I was in a school. How? The atmosphere, almost every school I have ever been in, ‘felt’ like a school. That’s not a judgement, merely an observation but what does make me judge, is what type of school atmosphere I experience.
Unwelcoming School Atmosphere
School atmospheres, in my experience, are polarized towards two extremes; those that are a welcoming school environment and those that are not. When I say welcoming, I don’t mean towards the humble visitor, although that does go some way in helping me decide. I mean how welcoming the school is towards its’ clients, the students. As a visitor, I am always keen to observe how the adults treat their young people because as the old adage goes,
‘schools being ready for children is more important than students being ready for school’
Invariably there are two governing cultures in any school; the adult culture and the student culture. These two cultures naturally dictate and determine different behaviours, unwritten rules and codes of conduct. These cultures also come with a set of expectations which, for the most part, are incongruous and abrasive to the other one. That is to say, young people don’t understand the pressures of being an adult working in a school and the adults have largely forgotten what it is like to be a young person and never the twain shall meet.
So just what does an unwelcoming school atmosphere look like? Things I have witnessed over the years include: How the receptionists treat and speak to students; voices frequently being raised by adults; staff eating on separate tables; high profile senior staff policing corridors at break times; uniformed security officers patrolling the premises; students being sent to stand outside classrooms; staff stood outside school gates smoking; students in rows working silently; lessons in which the teacher is stood mainly at the front and the students are sat mainly listening; I could go on, but I won’t, you get my point?
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How can I make my school happy?
So, what can schools do to improve their atmosphere? Well let’s take an average sized secondary school for example around 15oo students and staff, if every person knew each other this would equate to a total of 2,248,500 possible relationships. So why on earth do we not place far greater emphasis on the development of one common culture in which all human beings within that community treat each other with far greater respect and dignity? To extend that thought, there are roughly 7.5 billion people in the world, imagine how much fun we would have if we all liked and got on with each other?
What’s my point? Teaching is the single biggest ‘people’ industry in the world, no other business or profession deals with as many people as education does. So why not put people at the very heart of that industry and community and ask how can i make my school happy?; why not build school atmospheres around cultures that value all people regardless of their age and status within that community? Indeed, if schools were businesses and the students were the clients, many schools would go bust judging by how they treat their clients. So why not create and promote an atmosphere of equality and dignity, whereby all human beings are treated with the utmost of respect and integrity. Can you imagine what such a school would look and feel like to a visitor? Can you imagine how that would improve levels of happiness, well-being and mental health, not to mention productivity and academic achievement of the students?
So just what does a school with a welcoming atmosphere look like; how would the establishment of one culture affect the atmosphere of the school? As Einstein once said,
‘imagination is more important than knowledge’
Making school a happy place
So let’s use our imagination and with an open mindset, think beyond current practice and boundaries. Let’s re-imagine what a school community could look like if we weren’t hampered by the hegemony that dictates most of the decisions made by school leaders and the system within by which they are limited.
In order to recreate schools, think of a shopping mall, a well ran hotel or a popular restaurant, by and large there is harmony, trust and cohesion in all of these environments. Our schools need to embrace the same values by putting customer service at the heart of the experience; by trusting their customers and valuing what they bring and improving the school atmosphere as a result.
So students and staff would have equal standing;
Staff would create and facilitate multi-sensory experiences, which would deeply engage and stimulate young minds;
Lessons would be renamed experiences and staff would be excited and challenged to make them as powerful as possible. Students would be actively engaged in building their own programme of learning based on their passions and interests;
Buildings would be specifically designed to open up learning beyond the four walls of a classroom;
People of all ages, from toddlers to pensioners would be daily visitors to the learning community to expand and deepen the student experience whilst creating a truly cohesive wider community;
Staff and students would share a common respect and admiration for one another and the atmosphere within the school would have a tangibly warm and friendly feel;
People would go about the business of learning from each other not just facts, but morals, values and ethics that were the bedrock of the community.
Can you imagine the difference that would make to our society and indeed the world if all our schools were built around one culture?