Turning a Negative Into a Positive: How Schools Elevate Culture by Emphasizing the Positive

This article has been co-authored by Martha Maitchoukow, a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles.

Last week, California educators and families received some exciting news. The state's eighth-grade reading scores showed substantial improvement over the last two years, representing some of the largest gains in the nation. But unfortunately, media coverage focused primarily on overall flat student scores nationwide.

It's important to be honest about the areas where we fell short, particularly for our historically underserved students. But we also need to celebrate areas of success for students and teachers. The truth is, in the 2011-12 school year, over 100 schools in Los Angeles Unified grew 40 points or more in their Academic Performance Index (API), a statewide measure of academic achievement.

To build on these encouraging results, teachers must share the actions and efforts that contributed to the gains. To facilitate the sharing of best practices, Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles held focus groups with the faculty and staff of 35 of those schools, diving into the factors contributing to each school's growth.

Martha Maitchoukow is one of the teachers who participated in these focus groups and helped author a teacher-written report, "True Grit: The Game-Changing Factors and People Lifting School Performance in LAUSD." Below, she shares how her school has worked to strengthen school culture at a traditionally high-turnover campus.

As a teacher, I'm often asked what it's like to spend every day managing a classroom of 30 or more middle school students. My answer is always the same: working in a school is not unlike working anywhere else, except for the fact that every year you are in charge of a new group students. The truth is that every social environment, be it professional, social, or familial, has its own unique culture.

For better or worse, culture digs its roots deep into the minds and behaviors of any community. Given that our public education is where families, children, teachers, district policies and community histories converge this is even truer of our schools. The challenges to building a positive culture in schools are obvious: the variability of children, as well as teachers, and their various strengths and needs.

Given these variables, building a strong culture is central to ensuring a positive learning environment. I recently took part in a series of focus groups with over 400 classroom teachers and administrators of some of Los Angeles' most improved schools. The focus groups, conducted by Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angles, a teacher-led organization, found that more than 60 percent of teachers said that strengthening culture was one of the keys to success in their respective turnarounds.

My own experience as a teacher at Edwin Markham Middle School here in L.A. is no different. Historically, Markham has lacked a strong institutional culture, due in large part to frequent administrator turnover. Consistent leadership and culture feed into one another-with a strongly rooted culture of performance, expectation, and camaraderie, administrators, teachers, and families want to stay deeply involved. Strong leaders, a dedicated staff, and engaged parents are the keys to fostering a strong school culture, which ultimately has a positive impact on student outcomes.

At Markham, we began to rebuild a positive culture with a coordinated emphasis on the little things-namely, developing standard expectations for student behavior. We began coordinating across classrooms, throughout the school, and with parents; we developed consistent rules and protocols that kids understood and felt secure with; and we reinforced positive behavior, rather than only focusing on the negative. These changes were not particularly resource-intensive, but they made a world of difference for everybody.

At the staff level, teachers, counselors and administrators worked to get on the same page in how we think about behavior. I now have support from parents, counselors and administrators, instead of dealing with discipline issues in isolation. Just this past week, I took a student with a behavioral issue to the counselor's office, and there was no gulf between the counselor's approach to that student and mine. We agreed fully on how to proceed. By collaborating to identify what's uniformly good about student behavior, we are able to focus on how to expand that behavior throughout the student body.

For students, we made positive behavior a clear choice with clear rewards. When students understand the behavior expected of them and trust the adults in charge, it's easier for them to behave well. When given encouragement to make the right choices, and tying rewards and consequences to those choices, students respond positively. In the past, we focused only on the negative consequences for poor behavior without acknowledging their good behavior as well.

For families and the community, consistent standards of behavior promote positive interactions with teachers. By understanding all of the ways their children are succeeding, instead of focusing exclusively on failure, parents are increasingly encouraged about what is possible. What's more, it's infectious--parents want even more information, and have become increasingly engaged in other efforts like our Parent College, which is a program that provides monthly workshops to parents to help them better advocate for their children's education.

Ultimately and across the board, the emphasis on consistency has made all the difference, down to the way students eat meals and the way they walk the halls. Students are uniformly more aware of both the expectation for their behavior and the impact of their actions.

But most importantly, schools like mine cannot be complacent. Culture isn't static, but most be fostered in very proactive ways. We are emotionally and professionally invested in strengthening our culture in new and exciting ways. We have seen quite clearly that if you put an emphasis in building and establishing a positive school culture, outcomes improve and an organic desire to achieve even greater success emerges. Schools throughout our district have put an emphasis on building culture in a number of ways, and by examining and replicating their success, all of our students and teachers will benefit.