By: Marcus Jackson, Ed.D. Posted July 5, 2020

In June of 2019, a team of principals and I attended Harvard’s School Turnaround Institute for a week. The training was case studies, strategies on school turnaround, school policy, and a plethora of speakers speaking on a variety of topics. However, the item that sparked the most interest was school culture. If you’re an administrator, you’ve heard the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” Well, I’m here to tell you that “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.”

After a week of classes from 7:30 a.m. to – 6:00 p.m., school culture was the topic every night at dinner. When we registered for the conference, I requested the professors at Harvard and American Institute for Research (AIR) to conduct another session with us Saturday morning to assist principals with strategizing their school turnaround plans. About thirty minutes into the meeting, a principal said “let’s be honest, let’s talk about culture, let’s talk about how teachers feel about students. Not just in our system but all school systems in the country.” That’s the problem in schools and classrooms.

At this point in the meeting, Mara Schanfield form AIR asked for permission to lead the discussion. We immediately began an intense debate and activity from Re-Framing and Seeing Differently. During this activity, we discussed what teachers see, feel, do, and the results they get from their perceptions.   

What They See

The first question was, what do teachers, administrators, and staff members see when they see students? Although the question asked how did they feel about their students, the discussion quickly shifted to the black male. The first responses addressed all black and brown students as many felt that many educators had a preconceived notion of black and brown students’ ability to learn, motivation to learn, and they faced too many obstacles to succeed.

As the discussion continued, many of the principals began to talk about specific examples at their school where implicit biases of black boys were evident and were able to give many cases but were unable to recognize it was an issue at their school.

What They Feel

The next area we focused on was what do they feel after they see their students. The answers included an uneasy feeling, unsure if they could reach the students, incompetent of culturally relevant instructional strategies, a disconnection between the student and an understanding of their ethnicity, and a fear of the students. It’s important to remember here that the discussion shifted to the black male. The fearing of the black male was an in-depth discussion specifically on the media’s misconceptions of black male students and how that created a culture of fear.  

Re-Framing and Seeing Differently

Adapted from Bernabei, P., Cody, T., Cole, M., Cole, M. and Sweeney, W. (2008). Top 20 Teens: Discovering the Best-Kept Thinking, Learning, and Communicating Secrets of Successful Teenagers. Second edition.  St. Paul, MN: Top 20 Publishing.

What They Do

Dialogue became very emotional as principals, professors, and I had to realize that this was an issue in our schools. So what do educators do when seeing their black/brown students (especially the black male) as incapable, fear them, and are culturally unconfident and uneasy?

  1. They blame students
  2. Make assumptions
  3. Teachers intentionally miss days of school
  4. Hold students of color to lower academic standards
  5. Have stricter and different behavior expectations

These responses were no surprise to me as I was very knowledgeable about the disproportionate suspension rate of black male students and the low expectations of them in school.  However, this created much-needed dialogue amongst the leaders in the room to change the culture in their schools.

What They Get

The last forty-five minutes of the session focused on the results of these actions and their effect on students. First, we discussed how students immediately become disengaged in school. This engagement happens as early as first grade. Next, we discussed the disproportionate number of black males referred to special education.  Immediately after this session, our school turnaround strategy shifted to addressing culture. First, we explained how principals had to walk their staff through the same exercise to ensure that teachers were conscious of the five different school culture.t types of cultures: 1) the culture of the adults; 2) the culture of the students? ; 3) the culture of the teachers towards students; 4) the culture of the student towards teacher; and 5) the culture of the community. Each of these areas should be addressed to establish a positive.

Additionally, a social-emotional learning curriculum was implemented at each school.  I’m proud to say that the first two years were a success. Discipline issues are down, suspensions and down, expulsions are down, positive relations between the teachers and students have improved immensely, and test scores are up. As we plan for the new school year, these five questions about culture must be asked, and the school’s culture must be a top priority before any strategic plan is implemented. The areas of race, social injustice, and cultural competency can no longer be avoided.