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The Primacy of School Culture

In 2012, a new charter high school was founded with a bold goal: to prioritize culture as the driving force for student growth and success. A handful of colleagues and I were fortunate enough to contribute to the formation of this new high school, and now, we are excited to share some of our insights and experiences in Gibbs Smith Education’s new book, CulturED: Pathways for Meaningful School Change 

The book highlights five key cultural values–care, trust, rigor, authenticity, and stewardship–that we believe had the most significant impact on learning outcomes, social connectedness, and student motivation. This post provides a brief overview of these cultural values. 


In CulturED, Claire Wolters asserts that a school culture should be deeply rooted in a philosophy of caring and compassion. To care, in its truest sense, is to harbor concern for the well-being of others. This can manifest in a myriad of forms, such as encouraging, helping, listening, and respecting others. Just as we dedicate parts of the school day to academics, arts, and physical activity, we should also set aside time to develop character and community. When teachers and administrators take the time to teach and model compassion in their classrooms and schools, students will recognize the value of caring for each other. 

In one particular case, Ms. Wolters describes an incident in which a student brought to the attention of her advisory class that there was an injured bird in front of the school. The students asked, “Can we do something?” Ms. Wolters  provided her class with the opportunity to demonstrate care. With gentle guidance, the students were able to find a local wildlife rehabilitation center, make contact with the organization, and provide for the bird to be safely delivered to the facility. By making kindness a priority, Ms. Wolters enabled her students to learn authentic lessons about service and caring for others. 

Ms. Wolters further asserts that a classroom is not only a community, but a home. And just as an ideal home is a place where all family members feel heard, empowered, and loved, a classroom should likewise foster these qualities.  


In writing about “A Culture of Trust,” Lyssa Bevan, draws on her extensive teaching experience across a diverse range of settings to highlight a crucial point: that access to resources does not determine the quality of education. Rather, she suggests the key to meaningful education is found in the relationships that are built between educators and students. At the heart of any successful relationship is trust, which should be nurtured over time with thoughtful and consistent effort. Whether teaching in a rural school in a developing country or a well-resourced private institution, educators can create powerful learning experiences by building meaningful connections with their students based on trust and respect. 

Ms. Bevan suggests that students should be treated as partners in the learning process. Once, as she was lecturing on the carbon cycle, a student suggested it might help them learn better if they could turn it into a game. Ms. Bevan could have explained the importance of staying on schedule and moving forward with the curriculum, but instead, she trusted her students and gave them time to develop the game. Within the class period, the newly energized students had created a game that accurately and entertainingly represented the Carbon Cycle. The culture of trust that Bevan fostered enhanced motivation and learning in her classroom.  


In Chapter 3, “A Rise to Rigor,” Liz Wallace suggests that educational rigor is not  merely a matter of demanding strenuous coursework or imposing difficult, high-stakes examinations. Nor is it an approach that is inflexible, strict, or severe. In fact, Ms. Wallace contends that educational rigor is the antithesis of such attributes. Rather, it is an approach that involves urging each individual student to surpass their perceived limits, to explore and push the boundaries of what they think they can achieve, to surmount their personal fears and insecurities, and to provide a venue for confidence-building and follow-through. 

The most effective teachers possess the capacity to challenge their students and to inspire them to triumph in the face of such challenges. In her own classroom, Wallace recalls a student named Mel who wrote a reasonably adequate paper and received an equally adequate grade, but failed to fulfill her true potential. While providing Mel with constructive feedback, Ms. Wallace conveyed her belief that there was more within Mel that was capable of being realized. Because of the trust that had been cultivated between Mel and Ms.Wallace, Mel requested permission to revise her paper, ultimately enhancing the quality of her work and advancing her own learning and achievement. 


In the pursuit of creating a powerful school culture, authenticity and authentic learning are indispensable elements, writes Nick Kiriazis. For Mr. Kiriazis, authenticity means being truthful, sincere, and wholeheartedly embracing all that enables one to become their most genuine and authentic self. Meanwhile, authentic learning focuses on real-life situations that reflect the professional world of a specific field of study. When learning is authentic, it allows for self-expression and a true connection to the nature of what is being learned, resulting in powerful growth and development of the whole student.  

Mr. Kiriazis shares an experience in which he used model-driven instruction within a research framework to provide students with authentic learning experiences. In partnership with the University of Virginia, Mr. Kiriazis’s students were able to conduct real studies on the boldness of cockroaches. They collected data and reported it to the university.  

Mr. Kiriazis asserts that students can do complex tasks when properly prepared. Even young students can become experts in a specific area of study. Whether studying tiger salamanders in alpine lakes or creating costumes for a school play, a culture that supports authentic learning creates the space for students to thrive and flourish. 


The importance of integrating service learning into education to foster meaningful school culture cannot be overemphasized. As educators, it is essential to help students understand how their education can positively impact their communities. In CulturED, I  highlight the benefits of service learning and provide guidelines for developing a culture that fosters connectedness and stewardship.  

Service learning and stewardship are not integral parts in most schools' curriculum planning. Many schools place emphasis primarily on academic achievement, butlack the framework to build cultural and community support into their classes and programs. However, at the aforementioned charter high school, service learning became a key component of lesson planning. During lesson planning time, teachers were asked to evaluate the service components of their lesson plans and to share these with colleagues and administrators. By incorporating service learning into the curriculum, students were given the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired in the classroom to real-world situations and recognize the good they could accomplish. 


This particular charter high school's development is a remarkable exemplar of how prioritizing school culture can yield transformative outcomes. Through our shared cultural values–caring, trust, rigor, authenticity, and stewardship– the school was able to create a powerful learning environment that fostered greater intrinsic motivation and improved achievement of both students and teachers. The journey was not perfect, but the impact still reverberates over ten years later. It is not unusual for my colleagues and I to interact with former students, now adults, who attribute their later successes to the cultural values they learned in school.