The Importance of School Culture

When I was a newly qualified teacher, I worked in a large, chaotic comprehensive, whose head was good at wangling money for new buildings, but apparently uninterested in creating any sort of discipline structure, so that those shiny new buildings wouldn’t have their carpets plastered with chewing gum shortly after completion. Teachers would cower in the staff room during breaks, reluctant to police the riotous corridors and playgrounds. It was a horrible place.

It won’t surprise you to hear that as a new teacher in such a school, I had a lot of trouble keeping my year ten class under control. My only previous experience of teaching had been at a school with a proper discipline structure, backed up by daily detentions which were centrally managed and manned. Here, I was pretty much on my own, faced with rowdy teenagers, including a significant minority who would deliberately interrupt me when I was trying to teach the class. When I remember those year tens, I feel very sorry for the quiet ones, who just wanted to get on with their work, but were frequently prevented from doing so.

And this wasn’t a tough, inner-city school. It was situated in quite a pleasant suburban area, where property was rather expensive. My year ten class wasn’t a bottom set, either. It was a middle set. In every way, I was experiencing something very average and normal for an English secondary school.

I was pleased when the time came round for year ten to do work experience. It was going to be a relief not to have to attempt to teach them for a little while. But I was rather apprehensive about having to go and visit them on their placements.

I needn’t have been. They were quietly getting on with their duties in every workplace I visited. Not a scrap of insolence or unpleasantness of any sort could I find.

They had been taken out of the secondary school culture, where defiance and rudeness are applauded, and placed in the adult world, where such things are frowned upon. And they wanted to fit in. They didn’t want to be looked down on as a snotty teenager. So they didn’t act like snotty teenagers.

It has been the same wherever I have visited teenagers on work experience placements. From the agony and drama of conflict in the classroom, they move quickly and easily into the calm, ordered world of adult work. The power of a surrounding culture is enormous.

It makes me angry that school leaders do not see that the teenagers who are ruining lessons in their school are perfectly capable of behaving politely and respectfully, if that is the prevailing culture they experience. Most people just want to fit in. Schools like Michaela show that it is possible to create a culture where respect is the norm, with the right leadership and the right structures.

There is nothing inevitable about the poor behaviour of young people. There is no excuse for the way so many young people’s education is severely damaged by disruption. It is not the result of their ‘teenage hormones’. It is the result of a permissive culture which idolises self-expression. School leaders must have the courage to challenge this culture, and learn from the example of those who have built a different one.

Further reading:

Discipline Must Be School-Wide

Freedom Requires Discipline

Adolescents Are Not Animals


8 thoughts on “The Importance of School Culture

  1. Great piece as always, Anthony – to play Devil’s advocate, the fact that these pupils were doing something they had chosen and (hopefully) had a long term interest in (as well as the prospect of being paid for) are not inconsiderable factors alongside those you mention.

    However, I absolutely agree that the contrast demonstrates that teenagers are very capable of controlling themselves when they see it as in their interests / in the norms they see around them.


  2. Comparing work experience with a classroom is a bit unfair–in the former, adults normally outnumber teenagers by a pretty substantial margin, It also helps that very few employers would ever ask a placement “to develop explanations of inferred meanings drawing on evidence across the text” or to discuss generic ‘work experience skills’. Knowing that the work involved is the sort of activity that people normally get paid for also helps a lot: a paycheque is society’s way of telling you that you count.

    This said, creating a culture of respect in the classroom is not really all that difficult. Although Michaela is rapidly developing this into a science, the essential elements are direct instruction with a strong focus on knowledge and understanding, along with regular questioning, quizzes and tests. I pity any poor NQT who’s had her or his head pumped full of AfL and has swallowed the ITT line that tests are the next thing to child abuse. Not only do tests convey the message that what you’re teaching is worth knowing, but kids get a real buzz when they have proof that they are continually getting smarter.


  3. The experience you describe sounds a lot like the school I spent my first three years working at. I collected some incredible stories about student disrespect and misbehavior. (Let’s just say there was a bet involved, and let’s just say…well, the one part of the story I don’t understand is how that Physics teacher didn’t smell it.)

    I think you’re absolutely right to point to school culture — or any institutional culture — as the BIG determinant of how children behave. A lot of people focus too much on what an individual teacher can do. That’s not wrong, exactly, because we can do a lot in the classroom to impact behavior. But it’s an uphill climb unless the school is doing the right things.

    I’m from the US, and I only know about Michaela what I read. (From what I read, it sounds a lot like our no-excuses charter schools stateside?) What I’d add, though, is that there are many different models out there for creating respectful cultures that I’ve seen, and they seem to depend on a lot of idiosyncratic, location-specific variables that seem frustratingly difficult to replicate. (I say ‘seem’ so many times because I’m a classroom teacher and I don’t have a bird’s eye view of schooling.)

    Michaela sounds like a cool school, but I’d be surprised if every (or even most) respectful schools looked like it.

    Thanks for the post.


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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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