School Culture

Would you attend your class if the choice was yours?

It’s 9:00 am on a Wednesday morning and I as I stroll into the spin class at my local gym I see almost every bike is taken.  The few bikes that aren’t taken have a towel thrown over them indicating they have been saved for a friend. I manage to grab the last available bike towards the back of the room and make a mental note to get here earlier in the future.  While adjusting my bike and clipping in, I hear the chatter around the room.

“Have you been to this class?  The teacher is incredible!”  

“You won’t believe how good of a class this is.”

“I can’t believe how hard she pushes us. I rode at my hardest level ever last class.”

Had it really been that long since I’d been to this spin class?  I try to be consistent, but work and life sometimes get in the way and let’s face it, getting to a class at 9 am on a Wednesday isn’t the easiest thing to fit into a work schedule. Come to think of it, the last time I was at this class it was EMPTY.  There were probably only four or five riders in the room other than the teacher including myself and that was at the start of class, invariably a few of the riders let early. What gives? How is today so different? It’s the same gym, the same clientele, the same inconvenient time on a Wednesday morning......and the class is full!

Once class began, the difference was clear.  The differentiator was the teacher! This teacher was incredible.  She inspired, she pushed, she got off her bike and checked in on our progress. She brought her all to class - creating unique playlists, sharing “fit tips” after class while people stretched and getting to know us as individuals. She inspired each of us to accomplish more than we physically thought we were capable of and encouraged us along the way.  People weren’t attending this class because it conveniently fit into their schedule, they were attending this class because of the experience the teacher created. It really is that simple.

My boys headed back to school last week, and I hope more than anything else this year they have the experience of having that teacher—the one who is the differentiator. The teacher who creates an experience and pushes them to be their very best!  I know being a teacher isn’t easy. Demands are increasing, while school budgets are shrinking and yet despite unfortunate circumstances there are teachers out there who are the differentiators!  Thank you! Are you one of those teachers? Are you one of those leaders? Would students or teachers choose to show up for your expertise or leadership if they didn’t have too?

Fun Theory: The Troll in the Library Return Box


It’s summer.  We are visiting the library a lot more than we normally do during the school year which is fantastic, except for the returning of the library books.  My boys have excitement when it comes to selecting books, taking them home and reading them, but no one ever wants to engage in the process of returning the library books.  That all changed one afternoon when we experienced a “living troll” in the library return box. Whoever was working behind the library desk that day, decided to have a little fun.  Every time a book came down the chute, he either made a funny sound or comment— “Ouch that hurt.” “Hey, I’m trying to sleep in here.” “What do you think you are doing?” These comments had my boys doubled over laughing.  They called me over, “Mommy there’s a troll living in the library box.” Another book down the chute, another funny comment. Who knew returning library books could be so much fun?

Now my boys fight over who gets to return the library books and even though we’ve only ever encountered our “library troll” once, there is always the chance he might return.  Even if he never returns, the simple memory makes this chore more fun for us all!

This experience got me thinking about how a little novelty and fun goes a long ways. Our library troll became the topic of our dinner conversation. The boys have surely told everyone they know about their experience.  I was intrigued by this so much that I did a little research and it turns out Volkswagen developed what they called the “Fun Theory” back in 2009. It’s really a simple concept. The idea is “if things are more fun, they are better.”  If you are given two identical activities, all things being equal but one of the activities was more fun which would be preferred? Naturally the one that was more fun. If this is the case, then it begs the question “Why aren’t we trying to make everything more fun?”  

Volkswagen went on to test their “fun theory” to see if they could change human behavior simply by making the behavior they wanted to engage people in more fun.  Here are two examples of their fun theory tests:

Is there something you want to encourage students, teachers or even parents to do? How might you make it more fun?  I’m committing to bringing more fun to my work and I hope you will too. I would love to hear if you have any success with the “Fun Theory.”

What Rules are Getting in Your Way?

Challenge Rules With a Simple 1-2-3 Approach

It’s budgeting season, which means as a parent volunteer I am spending more time than usual at  in budget meetings.  The goal is pretty straight forward - plan a budget for the 2018-2019 school year that aligns with our school’s charter and is responsive to the needs to of our students.  We’ve had an incredible fundraising year, so you’d think these meetings would be fun and full of possibilities. Sadly, the meetings seem to be filled with what we can’t do, bureaucratic red tape, union rules and time constraints.  Quite honestly, they are some of the most frustrating meetings I have ever attended and I know I am not alone in experiencing this. In fact the majority of our k-12 educational organizations are strongly bound by rules and traditions. Instead of approaching new ideas with a “yes, and” attitude, it is not uncommon to hear all of the “yeah, butts” first.  I wonder how many times new ideas are shut down without a lot of dialogue because people see that the new idea might violate a rule, routine or tradition.

The culture of schools is radically at odds with the culture of learning necessary for innovation.
— Tony Wagner

For most of us, the rituals and routines of schools have become well-established habits.  We don’t even question them anymore or have any expectations that school should operate any differently than it is - especially when we are talking about making changes to a system that so many of us are products of.  But what if all of these rituals, routines and rules are actually get in our way? What if they are getting in the way of learning for students? What if they are getting in the way of our teachers who are trying to innovate?  Shouldn’t we do something to change them?

Let’s all channel our inner rule-breaker and see if it helps us make progress.  Go ahead... break a rule! We don’t encourage rule breaking lightly, but what if you took the time to look at the obstacles in your way and challenge them. They might not even be that big of an obstacle in the first place. In fact, what is the simplest thing you can reimagine that will have the most profound impact?  Is there something small, a practice or a rule that has bothered you at your school? If so, investigate it using a simple one-two-three approach:

  1. Identify one simple rule or practice getting in your way,

  2. Ask why the rule or practice exists, and

  3. Modify the rule or practice to make a big impact.

Here’s an example of a teacher who had great success breaking a rule.  Ashley Auspelmyer, the lead teacher of Studio D, a school within a school at Westwood High School, ran into a challenge with the established hall pass rule. Not uncommon, Westwood has a rule that states any student out of class must be in possession of a hall pass and each classroom is only given one or two hall passes to pass out at any one time. Yet, as an interdisciplinary school, the expectation for Studio D  is that students are not limited to a classroom setting; they are out and about talking to people as a part of their learning. How could Studio D support this type of learning, with only one hall pass for 116 students? After identifying the rule that was getting in the way of learning, Ashley printed 116 hall passes, one for every student in Studio D. In the future, Ashley hopes that this modification of the “hall pass rule” will lead to a culture change across the entire school, one that says we can trust our students to do the right thing. A bathroom hall pass rule seems like a small thing, yet it was a huge barrier to the type of learning experience they were trying to create.  

What rule, practice or tradition will you question?  I know the next time I attend a school budget meeting, I am going to actively work to turn any “yeah, butts” into a “yes, and…” by having examples of other schools who have found a way around the constraint in question.  I’d love to hear about your experiences. What rules, practices or traditions are getting in your way?

How Do We Harness the Collective Power of a Community?

See something, say something but then do something!

See something, say something but then do something!

It’s hard to move on from the events last week in Parkland, Florida where seventeen innocent lives were taken in yet another school shooting. It is even harder to understand how this happened.  In retrospect, people say there were concerns, they were warning signs.  Things were reported but nothing was ever done.  Of course the bigger issue is gun control, but since that isn’t a fight likely to be won anytime soon I can’t help but wonder how else might we come together to create a movement—a movement not just to end gun violence in our schools but a movement where parents and students voices are heard about changes that need to be made.  I am so proud of the students in Parkland who are speaking up and I hope more and more will follow suit.

Like many of us in schools, I straddle the work of working as an educator and being a parent of students in school. Last week, I received an email from our elementary school principal that was meant to reassure parents about the safety of our school.  He outlined the steps being taken in Los Angeles Unified School District and asked us to work together as a community with the “See something, Say something” campaign. While I am hopeful this will make a difference community-wide, I am also concerned by the complete hypocrisy of this campaign. I fear it is a campaign that makes for great media sound bites, yet translates into little or no action on behalf of our students.  It got me thinking about the partnerships between parents and schools and why so many parents are frustrated after getting involved, trying to make change without achieving results.

Let’s take the “See something, Say something” campaign as an example.  Here LAUSD is actively encouraging parents to speak up when they see something amiss at their campus, yet below are just two examples of recent times parents at our campus alone have spoken up repeatedly with NO follow-up action on behalf of anyone at LAUSD:

  • Beyond the Bell: Our school runs an after school program for students in grades 2-5. Students are free to play on the yard after school and parents are promised a safe and supervised after school experience for their students.  Yet, repeatedly parents have complained that “Beyond the Bell” is unsafe.  The school yard gate is unlocked and unsupervised, anyone is free to come and go as they please. The one paid supervisor sits on the far side of the playground where there is shade and pays little to no attention to any adults that walk on campus, let alone the students in their care.

  • School Wide PE Program: Our school fundraises to employ an additional PE coach to provide our students with the required 110 minutes of weekly PE.  Over the years, our community has expressed concerns regarding the inappropriateness of our coach's comments to kids (comments made to girls, “If you want to win, make sure to pick boys on your team.” or comments made to boys, “Don’t run like a girl.”) to the inappropriateness of the PE Curriculum (kindergarten students doing push-ups on the blacktop for PE) yet there is little to no improvement.  In fact, recently parents spoke up, followed all of the appropriate channels speaking with our principal and Governing Council parent representatives only to have the teachers at Governing Council essentially squash any concerns with an enthusiastic, “Our PE program is great” commentary.  Nothing has ever been investigated, nor will it.

While the ineffectiveness of our PE program and the safety of Beyond the Bell, are concerns in our parent community, it has left me more concerned by the process available to parents to raise concerns at their public schools. What options do parents have available to them when their concerns are ignored?

Are parent concerns of value? If so, why are so many of the concerns ignored?  When raised concerns are ignored, it creates a culture of apathy towards school.  I have met parents with concerns who have their youngest student going through elementary tell me, “We tried to effect change the first time through and now we are just trying to get by, we only have x number of years left.”   Just today I received an email from a very involved parent disheartened that the school is not willing to meet the needs of her advanced student, “I have done everything in my power to effect change.  I will probably just write a letter with a few parent signatures and ask for it to be read at Governing Council.  Then I think that’s likely the end of the road for me.  I just don’t have the bandwidth to take this on as a project… and question the benefits of doing so, anyway.”  

I consider myself fortunate to live in a community where parents have the time and resources to push for change and yet even in these communities parents are being silenced.  What about communities who do not have these resources?  Perhaps parents everywhere end up in the same place, unable to push for changes desired for students.

If schools are going to start promoting “See something, Say something”  campaigns, than schools have to be prepared to show that it matters when parents do speak up. Parents have concerns. Parents  are speaking up and in many cases are being ignored. Over and over again.  Schools can not ignore parent concerns daily, and then expect parents to believe they would honor their concerns in regards to a school shooting. The inaction is contributing to a culture of apathy among parents and is protecting mediocrity in our schools.

If we believe parents should, “See Something, Say Something” what should they expect when they do speak up? How will schools make sure voices of students and parents are heard?

There is power in a collective conversation where our children, parents, teachers and leaders all come together to voice concerns, listen to each other and do something to create the change we all want. Let’s start the conversation. “See Something, Say Something” is a start but then we have to “Do Something.”

Can Kindness & Empathy Be Reduced to a Checklist?


This week has been a tough week, with another school shooting making headlines I have felt heavier than usual wondering if we are making time for what really matters in school. It’s not just the increase in school shootings (that is another topic in itself) that have me feeling weighed down,  this week alone I have seen two examples that have left me wondering about the ways in which we are trying, no doubt with the best of intentions, to teach students about empathy and kindness in schools.

Here are two recent examples that caught my attention and really caused me to question our collective approaches:

Great Kindness Challenge: My two elementary aged boys participated in a weeklong kindness challenge at school.  For one week, they had conversations about kindness, there was a Kindness assembly and kids were asked to participate in a Kindness Challenge outlining in a checklist format activities they could do to be kind to others.  Our world needs more kindness, but even my first and third grader could see the inauthenticity of this week. If you visit the Kindness Challenge website, they advertise the week as follows:  One week. One Checklist. Infinite Happiness.  Can kindness really be reduced down to one week with a checklist? Does focusing on kindness for one week send the message that it’s not important the rest of the school year?

Just Don’t Say No Rule:  This week while traveling for work, I had the news on in the hotel room something I rarely do at home and heard the story about the “Just Don’t Say No Rule” at Kainesville School in Utah.  Again with the best of intentions, school leaders decided to implement a rule that 6th-grade girls aren’t allowed to say, “No” if they are asked to go to the dance or once at the dance they aren’t allowed to say, “No” if a boy asks them to dance. Thankfully the school has ended this rule.  The rule was meant to be inclusive, yet it was teaching students that being kind to others means putting yourself in potentially uncomfortable situations.   This is an especially problematic example, given where we are as a society with sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.  But, what does it say about our own understanding or lack thereof on how to teach kindness to our students?

Both of these examples have left me wondering about the culture of kindness in schools.  How do we build an authentically kind culture?  There are many programs in place at school - programs like Character Counts & Project Cornerstone - but are they effective? How do we know? How do schools, parents and the community come together to create a culture of kindness?  More questions, than answers.  

How are you building an authentically kind culture at your school?  I’d love to learn from you and hear some real examples that don’t reduce empathy or kindness down to a checklist.