A month or so back, I stopped by my office to accomplish some tasks and to retrieve materials I needed in order to continue working virtually. On my desk were notes about some minor discipline matters that had occurred on the day before we left school. Nothing eventful, just typical middle school “naughtiness.” I have a stark admission to make—I tossed them in the bottom of my desk drawer.

I know! How could I do such a thing!? Somehow, given the magnitude of our current crisis, getting around to following up on a kid who took fries off another kid’s tray without asking, leading to some minor pushing, seemed inconsequential. Were we at school, I likely would’ve brought both boys into my office and talked it over, then asked them what they thought might be an appropriate consequence. Kids usually apologize to somebody and choose a few lunch detentions.

This unprecedented end to the year has me thinking about all the things we do in school to exact compliance from kids. I have written herehere, and here about why kids do the things we ask them to do. Now more than ever, educators have to hope that we have developed the right kind of relationships with our kids and that we have instilled in them the impulse and the passion for learning that will sustain them through this unique era of virtual learning. This is the “stuff” of school culture.

Strong School Cultures

Strong school cultures are more important than ever because the quarantine has robbed mediocre teachers of their most potent tools. Many middle level settings either eliminated grades or adopted a pass/fail model as they finished the spring semester. So if teachers used grades as their primary motivation, hoops for kids to jump through, well, that’s gone. If teachers punished kids when they didn’t do the things they were supposed to do, that’s gone. What do you do to kids who don’t complete assignments consistently—confine them to their houses and separate them from their friends for five weeks? Oh wait, we’re already doing that.

And mediocre principals, you’re not off the hook either. If your approach to discipline is centered around punishment, well, that’s gone. Though, in truth, aside from the occasional cyber-naughtiness, there’s not much misbehavior to find, not that I’m looking. How are you going to punish kids who have already been removed from school and sent to their rooms?

Present conditions have cast a bright light on our educational practices as they existed prior to the pandemic. If your school culture was one of compliance and consequences, then you may be struggling without the conventional tools of the face-to-face environment. It’s not perfect, or preferred, but we have received positive feedback from both students and parents about the remote learning experience at our school. That’s because, over time, we have developed a culture that places a premium on relationships and where learning is our “why.”

If this kind of culture is in place, then your learning environment can survive a quarantine—and whatever comes next.

Donald Gately, EdD, serves as the principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY. He was the 2016 New York Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@donald_gately) and visit his blog.

1 Comment

  • Anastasios Koularmanis says:

    I truly enjoyed reading your post. This quarantine has definitely allowed many administrators and teachers to see their schools’ climate and culture in a different light.

    Anastasios Koularmanis

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