Looking at Climate and Culture from Another Lens | Steve Barkley

Looking at Climate and School Culture from Another Lens

My attention was caught by a New York Times post titled, What Parents Can Learn from a Town That Produced 11 Olympians,  by Karen Crouse, a New York Times sportswriter and the author of Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence.

Crouse shares that what she began writing as a sports book turned out to be a guide for parents. She uncovered an approach that stresses…

  • participation over prowess,
  • a generosity of spirit over a hoarding of resources, and
  • sportsmanship over one-upmanship.

“Parents encourage their kids to simply enjoy themselves because they recognize that more than any trophy or record, the life skills sports develop and sharpen are the real payoff.”

Many educators today are trying to find innovations that can allow schools to increase students’ success in developing life skills: soft skills, non-cognitive skills, and 21st century skills. Crouse may have uncovered a place to look. Stressing participation, generosity, and sportsmanship is a great focus for building a classroom and school culture that is socially and emotionally set to encourage maximum learning.

My early mentor and founder of PLS3rdlearning, Joe Hasenstab, held similar beliefs to these. Joe frequently suggested that students might be better prepared for post-school life if we held extra-curricular learning all day long and academic courses after school. PLS3rdlearning labeled these learning activities as live events. A key element of live events is that the consequences of the decisions a student makes are real…. not imposed by the teacher. Sport participation, as Crouse describes, it is a live event.

Crouse suggests a few guiding principals for parents. Consider how they translate for educators:

Treat Your Neighbor’s Child as Your Own

“In Norwich, parents are invested in everybody’s children, not just their own …. success of one child is celebrated as a victory for everyone.” My work with school leadership teams is built upon a belief that until a staff becomes collegial it will not reach maximum student achievement. Teachers need to function as team members, not franchise holders: focused on all students’ success across grades and content.

Frame Sports as Fun

The town’s collective philosophy is that youth sports exist to develop a lasting love for physical activity and the outdoors, life skills and friendships that last forever.

This statement sounds close to the “life-long learning” goal that is part of many school vision statements. How do we promote student experiences that reinforce “learning is empowering and fun”, even when it is hard work…a lot like sports?

“The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage. Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.”

 Judy Willis


Let Kids Own Their Activities

“In Norwich, the parents of the ski jumpers and snowboarders encourage their children to take risks, engage in horseplay and settle among themselves the conflicts that inevitably arise. When in doubt, they err on the side of giving their children freedom.“

If we are to have empowered learners in our schools, we need to encourage teachers to make some similar decisions. I was delighted to attend an elementary schools’ music/drama performance and hear the principal inform the parents that the “show” might appear less polished than previous ones they attended as the students had control of most of the decisions and designs. The school opted for learning over show. If students are to develop the skills and mindset of self-advocacy, what experiences do they need to have? How do we create a safe environment for students to learn to solve conflicts and negotiate? I am flabbergasted at some of the student to student disagreements that end up with parents meeting with an administrator for arbitration.

Perhaps Crouse’s findings in Norwich provide a framework for some workshops for parents as well as educators.

Listen to the podcast, “From the pool to the classroom,” for connecting insights.

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