Classroom and School Cultures: Contradictions (Part 1)

One of my former colleagues in anthropology once told me that he gags every time he hears the word “culture.” Why? Because “culture,” he said, has come to mean  everything under the sun and has thus become meaningless.

With my colleague’s gagging in mind, I will try to be careful in using the c-word in this post.

So let’s imagine going into a school.

What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general “feel” of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school.

The question I think about a lot is: Does a school culture influence strongly what values and rituals turn up in academic classrooms?  Can, for example, a school’s athletic success stir pride in students studying history to show up before the tardy bell rings? Sit down at their seat and start answering questions on the whiteboard that the teacher puts up daily? Can winning the state championship in football spill over into math and science classrooms so that students become engaged in studying the content, work quietly with partners in doing an assigned problem, and turn in homework regularly?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I will explore them in this two-part post.

Let me sketch out an example I saw up close recently.*

I sat in four social studies classes in a California urban high school that is largely minority and poor. With nearly a thousand students in 9th through 12th grades, the school, one of a half-dozen in the city, ranked the lowest of the city’s schools on annual state tests and graduated less than 60 percent of its students. Metal detectors and pat-downs by uniformed security personnel were daily rituals. Its football team had won state championships and provided an annual pipeline of scholarships for athletes to universities.

Since I saw only one teacher teaching classes in U.S. history and world geography, I will not generalize about classroom cultures elsewhere in the school.

While 20-plus students were enrolled in each class, only one had more than 20 students appear. The other classes had 10-15 students. Most were in their seats at the tardy bell but late arrivals entered throughout the period. The 16-year veteran social studies teacher was prepared for each class, amiable with students, and firm in following school and classroom rules.

One of the four classes (the largest with 24 students but 30 enrolled) was U.S. history but this day they were preparing for the state graduation test by going over items from a booklet prepared for this test. The teacher had an overhead projector with transparencies of test questions and topics from previous years. She marched through the items slowly by asking various students what the correct answers were and explaining why they were correct. Of the two dozen students about 8 were engaged with the lesson, the rest chatted until admonished by the teacher, applied cosmetics, had their heads down on the desks, or were engaged in other tasks. Late-comers gave slips to the teacher. The period lasted 43 minutes. The students packed up their belongings a few minutes before the bell rang.

The three ninth grade world geography classes were studying 19th century European imperialism in Africa. The teacher had the state standard for the lesson and assignment listed on the chalkboard with three questions for students to answer as they filed into the class.

There were 10-15 students in each of these classes. The teacher walked around the room making sure that cell phones were put away (a school-wide rule). She passed out  a worksheet drawn from the textbook chapter on imperialism. After 15 minutes, the teacher orally went over each question (she told them that for these questions they had copied down, the answers could be found on pp. 345-350 in the textbook and that they were going to be on Friday’s test).

Most of the students completed the worksheet and gave it to the teacher when the period ended. At least a third or more of the students in each class, however, chatted most of the time, slept, and did not complete the worksheet.

I do not know if these four classes were representative of classroom cultures in the rest of the school. Nothing much was expected of the students beyond textbook and worksheet answers. Most complied. The teacher worked hard at completing the lessons, collecting worksheets, and grading and returning them the next day. That was it.

From my perch in the back of the room in these four classes, I saw that students were largely disengaged from each lesson’s content. While school rules were enforced, the values, rituals, and habits favored the least amount of academic work possible. There were no disciplinary incidents that occurred in any of the four periods; the teacher maintained an orderly, safe classroom.

At the end of the fourth period class, I walked down the hall and stopped in and watched a joyous assembly of 11th and 12th grade students honoring athletes who had been chosen as all-stars to play in a U.S. Army-sponsored  football game.

And here is where the contradiction I noted above about school and classroom cultures occurred. I take it up in the next post.


*I have disguised where the school is located and certain details to protect the privacy of participants.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

14 responses to “Classroom and School Cultures: Contradictions (Part 1)

  1. Your account Larry confirms a decision I made when I worked as a Teach First tutor (think Teach for America) over a decade ago, in poor performing schools in London. After observing the whole school culture in several (not all) of the schools where I was mentoring trainee teachers, I advised them to focus on creating and maintaining a culture of learning and positive engagement in their own classroom and there only. Because it was glaringly obvious to me that these schools had at least one, key thing in common. The children controlled and owned the public spaces. No member of staff, however senior, either exerted or possessed sufficient authority to control what went on anywhere outside the classrooms in these schools. (The level of late arrivals you describe points to a similar, whole school culture.)

    I suspect it was because my own demeanour in these public spaces differed so markedly from other staff that I was asked several times by students… if I was a policeman.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Joe, distinguishing between school and classroom spaces, as you do, is useful. In U.S. schools located in largely poor, minority neighborhoods rendering a school safe and orderly is job number one to a principal–making the public areas of the school safe for kids to go from class to class, be in the lunchroom, in stairwells, and the like. Thus, in many schools like the one I visited two days ago have a large staff of non-teaching adults and uniformed security sweeping hallways and ever-present to students. In such settings a lone teacher or two cannot create such a climate. Your advice at that time distinguishes the boundaries between what can be done in the classroom with one’s students and what has to be done by an entire staff outside the classroom door. Thanks for commenting.

  2. This is a fascinating post–I am spending a year observing 11th grade English teachers in classrooms across Los Angeles in an attempt to better understand what makes a “great” teacher and blogging about it at GatsbyInLA. More and more, I have to admit I’m coming to think that what we call a positive “culture” (even if it makes us cringe) is an essential element of education. But I don’t think it means the same thing as “school spirit” or “school pride.” I think it can mean something different in each setting, but mainly has to do with collective buy-in by everyone from the principal to the parents to the teachers to the security team to the custodians into a code of ethics and standards that everyone will enact. I’ve seen schools do this in a variety of ways; sometimes it’s implicit, sometimes it’s a set of systems that everyone signs onto, sometimes with training. “Values” is also a loaded word, but without a schoolwide set of values that includes academic rigor and ambition but also communication, trust, caring and respect, it’s extremely difficult for teachers alone to get full commitment from their students. I’ve seen this play out both ways in wealthy private schools as well as in very low-income communities. And as far as I can tell, it comes from the top. Without a principal who’s able to communicate these values and enact them personally with everyone in the school, not just while enforcing discipline codes, I’ve actually come to feel that teachers alone, even excellent teachers, face a far more difficult battle, sometimes an almost unwinnable battle.
    Anyway, I’m very curious to read your next post!

    • larrycuban

      Ellie, thanks for your comment in the context of your experience as an English teacher in private and public schools. A journalist I know has spent a year observing a mostly poor, multiracial high school in San Francisco and we have had a few discussions about teaching, students, school and classroom culture and the issues you raised in your comment. Your points about culture going beyond “spirit” and “pride” are well taken. As is your central point about the principal embodying the values and going beyond keeping the school safe and orderly–all important as that is.

      • It’s shifting our emphasis from “the classroom” to a school of classrooms that forces us to think about what democracy means–who makes what decisions. Is the “leader” selected by those who they presume to lead, or by those above them in power. That will have lot to do with how they see their jobs–and whose approval they seek. When the leader is not really the leader, teachers retired from the school and created their own little castles, behind closed doors. See schools as “belonging” to all of its constituents–students, staff, families and community–poses interesting questions about who has the authority to make which decisions and is there a body that at lest represents all the adults?

        Thank you also for the terrific piece on the teaching history!


      • larrycuban

        Deb, nothing democratic about design,operation, or role of students in program. Students sign a contract–so it is, to a degree, their choice. Your point is well taken. Some critics have seen ASAP as “paternalistic” or a “benevolent despotism.” Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Jerry Heverly

    There’s a wonderful opportunity here in California around school culture. Our incipient Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) mandates citizen input into how state-provided extra money should be spent next year. Districts are supposed to “follow the money”. Is it really benefiting the three targeted groups (poor children, English language learners, and foster youth)? Test scores haven’t proven their worth IMHO. I’ve dreamed of some sort of cultural index that could be periodically reported to the citizenry. But every time I try to come up with a formula I realize the numbers are too much subject to manipulation.
    Number of tardies? (amazingly subjective; no two teachers count tardies the same way; if the public thinks this can be made uniform they don’t know human nature)
    Pass rates of AP classes? (no better way to guarantee that weaker kids will never see this kind of challenge)
    Value-added metrics? (there is no way they can measure a teacher’s worth this way)
    CAHSEE test results? (most districts now know how to game this system so that pass rates are converging all over the state; and the damage this does to real classroom culture (“time to prepare for the state test, !”) is epic
    Graduation rates? (you can’t seriously think this can’t be manipulated big time)
    Every time I try to think of something that we could pass on to the public as an accurate measure of school culture it fails the sniff test.

    • larrycuban

      Your comment, Jerry, shows how hard it is to capture “school culture.” The various definitions don’t help, of course and the proxies that might be used–you give some earnest examples– stumble badly. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Im so ‘glad you’re into this again. And again. At one point I was going to do a study with Pedro Noguerra in which we asked people to visit schools for a day and try to imagine (Martian-like) what, if anything, they have learned about democracy, or any way in which the concept seems valued, as well as what their lived experience is of decision making–who decides what.

    The idea being to note that while a cooking school is likely to include cooking, food, recipes; does a school to prepare us to be democratic citizens do anything like that?

    We never did it.

    It’s so wonderful to read your columns. Thanks–and have a happy new year.

    • larrycuban

      I wish you and Pedro had done that visiting. Answers to your question go to the culture of the school. A democratic culture where students and adults have differentials in power is hard to imagine. Except John Dewey and a few others like yourself, Deb, have.

      • I think we were seeking settings in which everyone was treated as though they were worthy, respected, important persons–even if they did not have an equal vote on all matters. This is true in many families–which don’t therefore operate as formal democracies. But they operate within the “culture” of a democracy??? I’m not sure myself about this but I do think it worked. It takes consciously laying out the “who decides what” and it helped that we did that. It’s a growing into process–from pre-citizen (citizen-to-be) to novice citizen to citizen to expert citizen! I’m making this up as I write. But I think it’s “replicable” in varied ways.

        But at the very least they witnessed a bunch of adults who operated democratically with each other, and treated them and their families with respect. I’m still struggling over what the decision-making roles of parents should be, and of the community. These three sets of adults are essential “constituents” of the school–and experts in ways different from but as important as us teachers. And I o think that there is a great role than we explored for students in the governance process. We focused on their role in planning and conducting their own learning plan–“owning” most of it, etc.

        We coud at least start though with a more horizontal structure of adult authority.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Deb, for the comment. I, too, struggle with the issues you raise when it comes to democratic modeling and practice with adults and “citizens-to-be” around which decisions can be allocated to one or the other or both. I remember well a few decades ago, the “open schools” where “town meetings” of secondary school students and teachers and parents tried to work through issues. In some places (e.g., H-B Woodlawn in Arlington (VA) I thought it worked reasonably well. In many other places, it did not. It is a process that takes time to work through, something that would be easily dismissed in this period of school reform. And there are the issues you raised and the ambivalence felt about who has the authority to decide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s