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What Influences School Culture

Tingley-021 colorWhen I was a fairly new principal, a high school teacher in my building helped students cheat on their state tests. This was before students had to pass these tests to be able to graduate (a student could still graduate if she passed the course).  Still, cheating on a state test was serious business that had consequences for both teachers and students.

I was completely unaware that students were getting help on the exam.  After all, at the end of each exam, all of the proctors (including the teacher as lead proctor) had to sign a statement attesting to the fact that no help had been given.  Everyone signed.

This particular year, however, one student told a respected coach that he had received help on the exam.  The coach brought the boy to me, and the student admitted to me as well that his teacher had given him answers.

During the ensuing investigation I discovered that all of the other proctors were well aware that the teacher helped students – it was that obvious.  “Then why on earth did you sign the statement saying the students had received no help?” I asked one of them.  I never forgot the reply:  “We figured you knew.  It’s been going on for years.”

I was dumbfounded.  They thought I knew and ignored it?  What followed were pain, heartache, and the teacher’s eventual resignation.  All of this resulted in a profound change in attitude towards the test-taking environment in our school.

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, tells the story of how New York City eradicated the once abundant graffiti from the subways by cleaning it off daily before it became an accepted fact of life.   Adam Alter, in his New York Times article, “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” cites similar studies of how the environment shapes the individual’s response to a situation.  Studies of broken windows or litter, for Iceberg_School-Culture example, reveal that the more there is, the more likely individuals are to contribute to the problem.

“These studies tell us something profound and perhaps a bit disturbing, about what makes us who we are,” writes Alter.  “Though we are all anchored to our own distinct personalities, contextual clues sometimes drag us so far from those anchors that it’s difficult to know who we really are – or at least what we’re likely to do in a given circumstance.”

What the school administrator allows, ignores, or commends affects the school environment not only for the students, but for the faculty and staff as well.  High standards can’t be imposed on a school from outside.  Local leadership makes the difference whether it’s littering, cheating, attendance, or achievement.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.