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Be the Change: Shifting the Culture within our Schools

What a time on our planet and in our nation—climate crisis, supreme court justice hearings, #me too dialogues, and the mid-term election around the corner. With so much stress, tension, and challenge on a collective level—it is even more essential to take care with ourselves and to intentionally support and engage our students.

To support you to create an inspiring, inclusive, relationship-centered classroom in the midst of all the turmoil, we want to offer some perspectives and practices that come from the four strands of our Engaged Teaching approach. The four strands of our approach—Cultural Responsiveness, Social and Emotional Learning, Mindfulness, and Whole Systems Thinking—are the foundation of all of our offerings—and we see these strands as inter-related capacities and practices that nourish and invigorate the minds and hearts of teachers, students, and parents. We have also seen that when schools wish to make long-term systemic changes—paying attention to all four strands is essential.

For example: if we created a social and emotional learning curriculum that didn’t address cultural bias—we would not truly be serving the social and emotional needs of our students. And if we don’t provide ways for students to learn to manage stress and cultivate attention in real time through mindfulness practices, students will struggle to pay attention and show up for the academic, social and emotional work. And if we only think of ourselves as one isolated individual teacher working in our individual classroom—we might miss the opportunity to shift our larger school culture in ways that would make our individual and collective work more effective and joyful.

Working with all four strands at once creates a kind of flywheel effect, where each strand positively influences the others—creating a profound synergy. It is a bit like weaving a basket from four differently colored reeds.  Each colored reed brings strength and support to the overall vessel that we are creating. Each strand is powerful and useful on its own. But, woven together, the four strands create a vessel where profound whole school shifts can occur—impacting the lives of every student, teacher and family member who is connected to the school.

This month, we can begin relating to the four strands by doing an assessment of our classrooms and schools—to see what is present and working and what might be useful to develop in the future. Below you will find a description of each of the four strands followed by reflective questions to guide your inquiry and assessment.

Cultural Responsiveness
The ongoing practice of cultural responsiveness includes conscientiously interacting with people and with systems—with an awareness of our own culture, histories, contexts, filters and habits of mind AND with curiosity and an open heart. It also includes a commitment to working with our own bias and worldview, so we can effectively meet and support our students’ learning and success.

Reflective Questions:

What cultures are present in my classroom and school—and how do I know this? How do I invite and acknowledge students’ culture to show up in the classroom and curriculum? What biases and worldviews do I hold that influence or impact my teaching?  Is my classroom culture inclusive? How do I know? Do I respond equitably to student behavior issues or is there a disparity in the way I work with students from different races and cultures? To what degree does my teaching practice support inclusivity, equity, empowerment, diversity, and cultural understanding?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL is a set of skills and capacities that support self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. Social, Emotional and Academic Learning embraces a “relationship-based” approach to teaching and learning.

Reflective Questions:
How do you invest in relationships in your classroom and school? What practices or activities do you already use to build community and a sense of connection?  Where is this missing?  What does your classroom currently feel like?  Is there warmth and ease? Tension and disruption?  Who “participates” and who doesn’t—and why? Over the next week, take the social and emotional temperature of your classroom and school. You may want to ask your students about their experience—perhaps in a short anonymous classroom climate survey or anonymous notecard.

Mindfulness is the natural human capacity to pay attention to our experience as it is happening in real time. When we intentionally cultivate this capacity through practice, we enhance our ability to focus, regulate emotions and extend compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

Reflective Questions:
How do you work with stress, distraction, busyness, and overwhelm in your teaching practice? How stressed are your students— and how do you relate to this? What do you do to self-regulate and come back to center when you feel triggered or challenged? How often do you pause and breathe or create spaces for integration within the busyness for yourself and your students? How do you engage in self care so that when you teaching you are well-resourced and your best self?

Whole Systems Thinking fosters cross-system collaboration and integrated interventions that honor and build on the wisdom and intelligence in the existing community to create sustainable long-term change. This view encourages us to make change at all levels of the system: teachers, colleagues, students, classrooms, whole schools, family/community.

Reflective Questions:
How do you collaborate (or not) with other teachers and colleagues?  How often do you meet to share best practices and troubleshoot issues? Do you have regular staff and faculty meetings? If so, how effective and inspiring are they? Do teachers in your school feel isolated—or supported and connected? What is the quality of the relationship between teachers and administration?  How do faculty and staff in your school transition to meetings and collaboration from the busyness of the day? How do you and your school engage the diversity of family members of students?  

Four Strands Practice:

When we are stressed or there is stress in the system, it is common to go back to our habitual ways of dealing with challenge. In these next days and weeks, notice how you tend to cope with stress—in both positive and negative ways. And choose one thing you might wish to do differently—whether that’s turning off media at a certain time of night, taking intentional time to breathe between classes, committing to exercise, or creating a mindfulness practice that can support you.

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