The Right Work to Take On: Fostering School Culture

By Matt Barnes, Upper School Head

During Fall Campout, I observed a wonderful teaching and learning moment between students. As we prepared dinner, there was a need to teach a few students new to Community School and to backpacking how to use the camp stoves. In this particular instance, the “teacher” was a yet-to-hit-a-growth-spurt seventh grader, and the new student in need of a tutorial was a hulking eleventh grader. As the situation unfolded, I watched as expert instruction was given, clarifying questions were asked, chances to demonstrate learning were taken, and fun was evident. The encounter ended with a sincere, “Cool. Thanks. I got it,” followed shortly by a hot dinner for all.

Without the foundation of our shared school culture, the willingness to be vulnerable, and the shared desire for a hot dinner, this event may never have happened. At Community School, we are blessed to have countless opportunities within the Outdoor Program to create and witness these moments. As educators and administrators, we want to see these same opportunities arise across the entire landscape of school and student life. How do we get there?

Elementary School Head Janet Salvoni and I were able to explore this question when we had the distinct pleasure of attending the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland last year. The conference inspired both of us with new and enriching ideas to put to immediate use; however, it was the long-term thinking of keynote speaker Sir Ken Robinson that has stuck with me.

Sir Ken discussed the importance of school culture as it directly relates to academic success, and he used a metaphor that was especially powerful. Equating schools to farms and academic progress to yield, he drew an additional parallel between a school’s culture and a farm’s soil. The root of this metaphor included a discussion of long-term health and sustained yield as vastly more important than any single year’s productivity. In the same way farmers aim to sustain productivity beyond one year, schools too desire consistent growth over the long term. The work of maintaining healthy soil and of fostering a strong school culture are both not only laborious but often necessitate overcoming occasional setbacks. However, in the end, for years of productive yield and for all the classes to come, this is the right work to take on.

At Community School, we already have several key incubators for long-term cultural growth. The Outdoor Program (as mentioned above), teacher-student relationships, strong academics, and our graduates’ success in the wider world all continue to enforce a strong school culture. Additionally, as a strong culture also builds confidence and tenacity within the individuals in that culture, these elements help students pursue their academic best. Without a doubt, the long-term work that Sir Ken challenged us all to undertake is happening at Community School.

The recent Breaking Down the Walls event in the Middle and Upper Schools signified another great stride toward maintaining a positive culture. Having facilitator Mike Walsh on campus working with students and faculty reminded all of us of the importance of each person’s story in the strength of our shared culture. The experiences we have make us who we are. Taking the time to share, even little pieces of those stories, adds much-needed nutrients to our collective soil. Connecting the work of Breaking Down the Walls to the presentation of Sir Ken Robinson provides both direction and momentum to Community School. Conversations around how we plan to build on this momentum are in the works. It is exciting to see this process grow organically within the student body. It is equally inspiring to see our school community seeking to step outside the comfort of our current culture to embrace increased inclusivity. 

Ultimately, continually working to maintain a strong culture promotes learning across the entire school. The vulnerability and willingness to take a risk in classroom is no different than that required to learn how to use a stove in the backcountry. The culture at Community School is strong. We have taken several recent strides to make this culture even stronger. The end result—confident, compassionate, and inspired students—will ensure we continue to live our mission.