I went to a school the other day and found the front door locked. That’s not unusual in today’s world. I pushed the button and the door buzzed open – someone somewhere gave me entrance. I walked into the front hallway – it was empty, and it wasn’t immediately apparent where the office was. The halls were empty,too. There was nothing on the walls and the halls were quiet. The halls and floors were scuffed and the lighting dim. I wandered around until I found the office, was told to sign in, and pointed in the direction of the gym, where I was going to do my show. I was on my own.
The week before, in another school, the principal met me at the door.
“Would you like to see our school before your show?” she asked.
She led me down the hall and stopped at a first grade class. There was art on the walls, each piece of artwork different. As I walked down the hall, the students and teachers in the hall greeted us and were greeted in return. She stopped one of the students and asked them about his sister.
Maybe you get my point: Where would you want to go to school? Where is the a greater chance of being cared for and learning? If you’re a principal, you may be saying, “I can’t meet everybody that comes in the door.” It doesn’t have to be the principal, and a guided tour is not the important thing. My point is that you can tell a lot by a school by walking down the hall. For all the methods of evaluation devised, we may be able to tell a lot more about a place by what it feels like. When we talk about how something “feels” we’re talking about a mix of aspects and elements that are hard to identify as separate strands. Those intuitive leadings have great wisdom. It makes some sense to try and identify why something “feels” like it does, but we also need to give due respect to that gestalt experience.
I’m not always right about my first impressions of schools – sometimes what seems like a great place to learn is really a mess, and sometimes the apparently “cold” place has something going on that I completely missed. But much more often than not, a day spent in the school, or a week, or month, reinforces my first impressions. I’ve been in, I guess, two thousand schools over my quarter century of work, and I’ve come to trust those first ten minutes that tell me what’s happening in a school.
Walking into a school – especially an elementary school (although I’d also like to be able to say this about middle and high schools) – is a lot more like walking into a house than an office building. Houses have different feels. In each and every one there is something new and something familiar. When I walk in the door of a house, I am greeted with sight, smell, and sound that tells the story of the house. Some are immediately welcoming-orderly, but not punctilious in nature. Aromas of food, odors of cleaning agents or the absence of them. There are sounds – sounds of quiet, or stillness, or conversation, or brittle words. Even when no one is in the house, when I walk into it, the house speaks to me of what the life of the house is like. While we could unravel each separate strand that goes into this feel, it is the whole – the sense of the house that speaks out about whether the house is welcoming or cold, happy or said, full of life, or empty of it.
All that is true for schools, too. After half a lifetime spent visiting schools, I’m trying to understand what it is that makes a school “feel” right, and what follows from having a place feel warm and inviting. What I’m talking about is the culture of a school. And while I should not be trusted with curriculum and testing, I understand the elements of a culture of a school. That’s important, too.
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