When it comes to starting a school, there are a lot of important things. You need to make sure you are zoned and licensed and insured properly. You need to make sure your operation is financially sustainable. You need to make sure actual teaching and learning is happening.
But what is the most important piece?
For us, the answer is simple. It’s the culture.
Yes, the curriculum is important, and having good teachers is essential. Yes, comfortable seating is more conducive to learning, and we need to make sure we can pay the bills. But, for us, none of this matters if we don’t have the right culture.
Culture is also potentially the most complicated and nuanced piece of the school, however. So how do we, as a new school, go about building and ensuring we have a strong culture?
One of our advisory members (and an expert in school leadership) Bruce Powell once said, when it comes to culture, “Everything matters every time,” and this is perhaps the piece of advice we’ve reflected upon most during this journey. Everything matters every time. So how does that help us build our culture?
Our dear friend and founder of Anastasis Academy, Kelly Tenkely, has shared with us that new students at her school often have a rough first few weeks when they are adjusting to the school culture as they feel like they are always in trouble. It’s not that they are in trouble; it’s just that everything matters, every time. If a kid responds to another kid or teacher with something snarky, everything stops, and they take time to review what just happened. If students are talking over each other instead of listening to each other, the teachers take the time to wait for quiet before moving on with the conversation. If someone acts in an unkind way to another person, he or she is immediately called out.
And that’s what we’re doing here at Einstein Academy during these first few weeks of school. For us, it’s potentially more challenging than just a few new students at the school as we are setting the norms and culture of the school from scratch. We don’t have older students or veteran students who can orient the new students. We’re all new, and we’re all in this together.
So what does that look like?
In short, we are having lots of conversations and doing lots of practicing.
We’re talking about what makes a community and what makes our community special. We’re talking about what kind of space we want to create and how we can all work together to create that. We’re talking about what we need from each other and what we can each contribute. We’re talking about classroom covenants and what it means to be a leader in the school.
We’re practicing kind words and safe behavior. We’re practicing how to work together with a partner or in a team. We’re practicing our listening skills and how to actually hear each other. We’re practicing our friendship skills and being inclusive along with our learning skills.
None of this is easy. It’s not easy for adults, muchless kids who range from kindergarten through fifth grade. But it usually works out that the stuff that is most important isn’t the easiest.
We’re asking a lot of our students. We’re asking them to empathize with people they’d never met two weeks ago. We’re asking them to change how they are used to doing things. We’re asking them to trust each other and invest in the community together.
And, honestly, it’s a work in progress, as we knew it would be. Sometimes it feels like we take one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes it feels like we are having the exact same conversations every single day. Sometimes it feels like we will never really get there.
But then there are the moments when we know it’s working. When a student notices that we’re missing one kid and acknowledges that our community feels incomplete. When all of the students play a game together at recess, including everyone, without direction from the faculty. When someone stumbles on the sidewalk, and classmates run to help. And it’s in these moments that we know we’re doing something right, that we know some of what we are doing or saying is shaping the culture in the way we want.
And we’ll keep at it. We will have as many conversations as we need. We will take as much time as we need. We will do whatever needs doing to ensure that we are creating a safe, joyful environment for our students to learn. Because everything matters. Every time.