Do schools suffer from a belief gap whereby teachers and school leaders do not believe all students can achieve? Kate Sattler and D.A. Bullock would argue yes.

In a recent op-ed in the Star Tribune, Sattler and Bullock urge educators to “look in the mirror” to examine teachers’ racial bias, instead of exploring more ways to adjust black male students’ behavior.

Whether or not you agree with Sattler and Bullocks’ assessment, it’s hard to imagine that what teachers believe doesn’t have an impact on student achievement, positively or negatively.

And a new international study of school principals suggests that school leaders set the tone (or don’t) for high expectations for all kids. “If schools don’t expect much from their students, the students are not likely to accomplish much,” asserts New York Times writer David Leonhard in his summary of the study.

So, can school leaders change teachers’ beliefs? Maybe not. But they can help develop a healthy school culture that raises expectations and results for students.

According to Dr. Kent Peterson of the University of Wisconsin, a positive school culture has “a set of values that supports professional development of teachers, and a sense of responsibility for student learning.”

As a teacher, this is the kind of school in which I want to teach: where my leader and colleagues have an unwavering belief in the ability of all of our students to succeed, and where, together, we create policies and practices to support this belief.

This may not seem like a tall order, but as a 14-year veteran teacher, I can tell you that too many Minnesota kids do not learn in a school with this kind of deliberate, positive school culture. Instead, they learn in a toxic culture, which, according to Peterson, lacks a clear sense of purpose, has norms that reinforce inertia, blames students for lack of progress and discourages teacher collaboration. In other words, a toxic culture pretty much guarantees that achievement gaps will persist because—consciously or subconsciously—educators protect the status quo.

To improve academic outcomes for all kids, we must start by improving school and staff culture. So, how can teachers and school leaders establish a culture where, as Dr. Anthony Muhammad describes, all teachers want success for every student, accept that change is necessary to improve student performance and put student interest before personal interest?

Here are a few ideas:

Develop trust. Too often, schools have huge, cartoonish deficits in terms of trust: teachers don’t trust administrators, and school administrators don’t trust the central office. People continually over-promise, under-deliver and generally lack transparency in decision-making. These are avoidable and fixable traps. We can encourage responsibility, follow-through and honesty within and across our schools if we establish trusting, healthy relationships with our colleagues. At my school, for example, we have built a rotating, shared leadership model in order to cultivate trust, transparency and shared ownership of outcomes.

Adopt a growth mindset. Most educators are likely familiar with Carol Dweck’s research on how mindsets affect student achievement, but I also believe that mindsets deeply impact teacher performance. That’s why we teachers need more support and coaching—to adopt a growth mindset about our students and also our own teaching. My colleagues have helped me adopt a growth mindset, shifting my goal from wanting to be good at what I already know to developing and growing in my areas of vulnerability. My peers and school leaders encourage me to take risks in my classroom, observe me when I pilot a new teaching strategy and provide feedback on what they see—and this all adds up to some of the best professional development I’ve ever received.

Shift the conversation. We need to intentionally change the nature of discourse in our schools from the way things are to the way things could be. We need to shift both our thinking and our dialogue in order to address the inequities in our school systems, carefully observe the language we use and be brave enough to give each other critical feedback.

As we kick off another school year with many challenges ahead of us, let’s remember that a healthy staff culture is essential for school change—and that we have the power to improve it.

Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.


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