Emotion culture is powerful because it originates in how we are socially and cognitively wired. In schools, emotionally charged meanings are part of school culture. We are predisposed to connect with others in organizations, and the qualities of those relationships and the ends to which they are directed are strongly influenced by emotionally charged meanings.

Take Harding High School (HHS) in St. Paul, MN, for instance. The school’s new inclusion policy was introduced in the middle of the fall semester with an overly ambitious timeline and insufficient resources. As a result, many new students found themselves behind in their classes, uncomfortable in the new high school environment, and frustrated. Not the inclusion response they desired!

So, HHS’s Principal Doug Revsbeck worked closely with his leadership team to carefully plan out a different path for long-term school improvement. Peter Demerath had started to study HHS because of its steady improvement trajectory, and began to work in close partnership with leaders and staff to see how they would implement such an ambitious plan in such a short time. Over the next three years, it became clear to us that the school’s ultimate success in implementing the policy lay, in part, in its strong emotion culture.

In 2014, HHS had an enrollment of 2,077. The school’s student body was 2 percent American Indian, 51 percent Asian-American, 15 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African-American, and 10 percent European-American.

Charged Meanings Regarding Students and Their Capabilities

Staff members often commented on what they had learned about the challenges that students faced outside of school. A Native American arts and media teacher said, “I’ve been here 20 years, and a lot of these students really don’t have much.” The African-American cultural liaison stated that he frequently heard students say, “We have no food in the house.” A white female English teacher commented that many of her English-language learner (ELL) students “are trapped inside their head, because they can’t express themselves as they think.” These empathetic understandings of students and their lives make up a powerful kind of knowledge generated in part through emotional response. It is this quality that gives them their motivational charge.

Closely linked to staff members’ understandings of student challenges were their shared beliefs in student capabilities. These were readily apparent in the ways that HHS staff members and leaders talked about students, including those who caused difficulties. These students were usually described as “knuckleheads” or “squirrelly” or as students who hadn’t “gotten the support they needed.” Notice the word choices here: Such language does not represent students in completely negative terms, and it even carries positive emotional tones. The language used by these school leaders certainly suggested a growth mindset and their belief in these students’ capabilities.

Emotionally charged meanings were made and remade by staff members and leaders through their everyday work and talk. This is one part of HHS’s secret: They learned that the type of language leaders and staff members use to talk about students shapes how they actually think about them. As the principal there for 12 years, Revsbeck—along with fellow administrative staff colleagues—learned that this language was far deeper than using politically correct labels; it was the foundation for everything they did in the school because these terms had emotionally charged meanings. If a newer teacher used deficit-laden language, a veteran teacher or administrator would redirect them. Most importantly, staff regularly saw that empathizing with and believing in students enabled them to establish the trust and credibility needed for effective teaching and learning relationships.

Over three years, the school developed a plan to implement its original inclusion policy, ensure more equitable opportunities for all students, and resume its improvement trajectory. Much of the success had to do with the school’s positive emotion culture that had been built. This is a deeper, more robust level of shared culture, made up of emotionally charged meanings regarding empathy for students, optimism in their capabilities, and motivation to help them flourish. It also included other charged meanings shared among staff members, such as trust in one another’s abilities to collaboratively learn and solve problems.

Collaboration, Leadership, and Efficacy

Teaching, following, and learning from the example set by others were keys to building a collaborative culture at HHS. Empathy and trust in teachers and their work was essential to building strong relationships. The teachers valued that style of leadership because they felt respected and their voices were heard.

One of the primary ways in which HHS teachers exhibited leadership was through the visible roles they took on in professional learning. HHS’s staff meetings were typically focused around showcasing innovative work by teachers across the various departments. Most staff members embraced professional learning, though there were some critics in group meetings.

Building Positive Emotion Culture

Over the next several months, HHS administrators and staff figured out how to better implement Saint Paul’s new inclusion policy. They decided to repurpose early intervention for grades nine and 10 with a strength-based content acceleration model that aligned closely with their successful schoolwide AVID program. Importantly, racial equity and culturally responsive teaching were identified as key areas of improvement for the school, as its teaching staff—predominately European-Americans—exhibited varying degrees of racial self-awareness. To this end, the school worked diligently to significantly increase the diversity of its staff.

The evidence from HHS shows us that these are everyday efforts that any school can undertake. And they have big payoffs: They help build a culture of academic optimism, and they establish the trust and confidence needed for collective efficacy. At the end of the day, they reinforce staff commitment to the school, its students, and each other.

Peter Demerath is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and the author of Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School. Doug Revsbeck was the principal of Harding High School and currently teaches in the Administrative Licensure Program in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Schools can build positive emotion culture by:

  • Generating and sustaining empathy for the challenges students face
  • Communicating to students their shared optimistic beliefs in their capabilities
  • Paying close attention to how they talk about students
  • Developing structures of shared leadership
  • Developing a supportive, low-risk climate for collaborative professional learning