How We Create a Culture of Learning at Zaharis School
I have found in life that it is impossible to take others on a journey that we, ourselves, are not on. It is quite the challenge to inspire others to become something we are not. A friend of mine says it this way, “Ya can’t lead where ya ain’t goin’.”
In school cultures, this translates into the following—how can teachers inspire their students to develop as readers if they are not readers themselves? How can we as administrators ignite a passion for learning and professional study among teachers if we are not passionate about our own growth and development?
Outside one of our sixth grade classrooms is the following quote: “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” How do teachers spark the flame of curiosity within their students—to look at life and learning as researchers and askers of questions, if they, themselves, do not see the world through that lens?
In the midst of increasing demands, mandates, and prescribed practices, teachers are busier now than ever. Carving out time to cultivate a culture of professional study is definitely a challenge. But investing time for professional study is not a time issue, although it may be disguised as such—it is a priority issue. We all received the same 24 hours yesterday. What sets us apart from each other is how we make use of the time we have. Most school days across the country are about 6 ½ hours. What we do with those 6 ½ hours is a matter of priority. It requires a non-wavering and deliberate effort to make professional study a non-negotiable.
What does a community of learning look like where a high premium is placed upon professional study?
- Staff meetings become focused on teaching and learning. Everything else that is important is dealt with through other communication channels. It is here where we foster our own spirit of inquiry. It is here where we unite and celebrate each other’s growth, achievements, and successes. It is in these gatherings that we blur the boundaries between life and school. Learners from outside of our community of learning become part of us. Their alternate ways of seeing and knowing the world allow us to welcome new possibilities for growth.
- Professional books are read continuously, school-wide and in book clubs where smaller groups take time to make sense of new ideas together. We have a wall where the touchstone texts are displayed that have informed our practice. We do this not to impress others, but to make the declaration: “We take our own learning very serious at Zaharis School!”
- We present our work at local and national conferences. The construction and framing of conference proposals can be more of a learning experience than actually attending the conference, we have found. This forces us to consider questions such as, “What are we about? What is it we do each day that is worth sharing with others?” Not only does this stretch us professionally, it is one of the most powerful community-building experiences we engage in as adult learners.
- We take time to visit each other’s classrooms and open up our doors to all who would enter—including parents. A mother once shared, “The only time I’m not welcome in my son’s classroom is when they are working on their Mother’s Day projects!”
- We take time to visit other schools to gain new perspectives and share ours with others. Some of our closest professional relationships are with school communities scattered throughout the country.
- Mentor relationships are formed, where less experienced teachers apprentice themselves to their more seasoned colleagues.
- Teachers are given time—time to take-up a life of scholarship and time to reflect. Perhaps this is the greatest support I can offer my hard-working associates—to trust them enough to create space in their professional lives to honor their personal and collaborative study.
While traveling to a national conference with several of my teacher colleagues, I found myself seated on a plane next to Dr. David Mundelson, a doctor of hematology. When he discovered I was a teacher, he responded with, “I am who I am today because of Mrs. Hansen, my 6th grade teacher in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She became part of my life—my family” David explained, “She noticed me. It was all about the relationship. For the very first time, I wasn’t just another face in the crowd. In her classroom, we did more than just regurgitate facts. Learning came to life! I was the classic underachiever. Until I met Mrs. Hansen.”
Mrs. Hansen developed a culture of learning that gave birth—in part—to a very successful doctor. He shared his recent frustration with some of his colleagues who had tried to discourage his daughter from a career in medicine. “They tried to convince her that now is not the time to enter into the profession,” he chimed. “They told her the profession has become too scripted, with too much government control, and how it’s becoming more and more difficult to do what’s best for the patient anymore.”
“How did you respond, David?” I asked “I told her the profession needs her more now than ever. And that she is bright, caring, and passionate and can make a difference anyway! And that’s exactly what she is doing today.”
And that’s exactly what we need to do today. With all the challenges that we face, we can find time to create schools where cultures of learning abound—even thrive. The next generation of Dr. Mundelsons depend upon us!