The school year has begun for just about everyone by now, which means that right now students and teachers across our country are working hard to forge relationships that will allow learning to take place throughout the rest of the year. Even if some teachers don't dedicate specific class time to culture building, even if they don't recognize it, anytime you introduce rules, create a class constitution, play team building games, or have your students make table tents so that you can learn their names better, you are culture building. It is the most fundamental and important step in creating a space where students can grow and achieve.
At least that's what I thought until this year. I had always believed that this was the first step the most fundamental building block in student achievement was a classroom culture that is supportive of all students. I now I know that there is a step even before that, and that is ensuring a school-wide culture that supports teachers and students in creating that culture within the classroom.
This first step, or what I'm going to refer to as step zero, is sometimes overlooked or dismissed because in some places, this culture already exists due to school, student, or community norms. In many, many schools, you don't need to remind students about basic, fundamental expectations or how school works. They have either grown up knowing them, or they are being reinforced at home, or they are well-established before they enter the K-12 system. Many of the places I have taught have community understandings that support learning, and so it makes sense that the step was one that I hadn't had the opportunity to analyze fully. But now, I realize that some schools have skipped step zero or think they can bypass it all together.
I came to this realization after seeing one such school. Due to a number of factors that include a legacy of dysfunctional leadership, students who have challenges at home, and a lack of any commonalities within the student body, zero was never given a second thought, and the results were painful to watch.
So what exactly does zero entail? It involves many different things, almost all of which are articulated before the students even arrive in a teacher's classroom;
Teachers are made aware of the supports that are available to them and the expectations and goals of the first month in the classroom.
Administrators create an articulated pyramid of intervention to help support both teachers and students if disruptions or challenges arrive. There is no guessing about what to do with behavioral challenges, attendance issues, or academic benchmarks, because they've all been laid out and articulated to the entire staff and discussed so at worst everyone knows what the expectations are, and at best consensus has been reached.
Teachers are given the time they need to ask questions. To plan with each other. To support each other without huge amounts of distractions. Yes, there are certain things that must be taken care of the beginning of the year that are required by district or state guidelines, but absent that, teachers first month is considered sacred, in recognition of the importance that first month has been setting the course for the rest of the year.
New teachers are fully supported to make sure that they have everything they need to confront the challenges that the first year brings. If the first year teacher is perplexed by a challenging student, doesn't have the background they need to support and differentiate, or doesn't understand district goals, step zero has not taken place, and the likelihood of that teacher having a successful first year has gone down dramatically.
Parents and the community at large is engaged in some way so they have the answers they need to help their children prepare for the first day and so they feel connected to and invested in the school.
There are of course other things that need to be added, but these could be considered the bare minimum. Without them the year will be an uphill battle and there is a greatly reduced chance of success, but it doesn’t mean they year is totally lost, but in a high-stakes situation where students are involved and the success of a year depends on them, you need to make sure you’re doing everything you can.