Like many other schools, we’ve experienced ebbs and flows of mask mandates and other pandemic-related precautions over the course of the year. Although students experienced different levels of comfort, we managed to keep most traditional student experiences intact. Students played winter and spring sports, clubs hosted community events, and our fine arts program showcased student talents in music, theater, dance, and art. Seniors attended prom, and our school hosted an end-of-the year pep rally and field-day celebration with ice cream, kickball, and bounce houses.
As we considered which traditions to bring back from before the pandemic, three organizational trends emerged.
1. The Importance of Celebration
This has been quite a year. Many students have struggled with anxiety and challenges with learning, family, and friends. The successes we have had, large or small, should be recognized and embraced. In the book Professional Learning Communities at Work, former superintendent Rick DuFour shares, “One of the most important and effective strategies for shaping the culture of any organization is celebration.”
For example, before the pandemic we had recognition in a large formal gathering where names were read quickly and impersonally and students received certificates of achievement. Now we have shifted to genuine celebration in small, intimate venues with only the club members present. In our student council, for instance, this meant we were able to exchange small gifts and recognize the efforts of our students in a far more personalized way. We also had the tradition of impersonally rattling off names for our senior awards.
This year, instead of handing out dozens of awards like “Outstanding Chemistry Student” and “Social Studies Scholars,” we all met in the lobby of our auditorium, where students could go to the department chairs and have a conversation with their nominator. Moving away from a large awards assembly has led to a far more meaningful exchange between students and their mentors.
2. Develop Good Habits Instead of Traditions
Some of our traditions were no longer meeting the needs of the students. Still, we were clinging to them because we have always done things that way. After not being a part of the students’ lives for nearly two years, many of these traditions were only traditions for the faculty and not the students. Viewing our activities as habits allowed us to determine if they were good habits we wanted to further develop or bad habits that no longer reflected who we were. As an example, viewing the tradition of our senior awards (mentioned above) as a bad habit, we were willing to experiment with change in order to improve the experience. We needed to not take for granted what students wanted and to remain fluid in our approach to adjusting the school culture.
This year, I felt my science students had an experience in my class that no other class before them had. My students struggled with transitioning from the expectations associated with remote learning to in-person learning. Many struggled with receiving feedback and taking action to address deficiencies in their learning. By the end of the year, students were hitting their stride again, but I could tell that students had regrets over how they addressed learning. As a result, we ended the year by writing letters to the next year’s students. We created an advice time capsule that next year’s students will open to find advice for success from this year’s students.
My students asked why they didn’t get a card at the beginning of the year, and I told them it was because no one had to work through a pandemic for in-school learning as they had. These students were in a unique position to share an experience with future students. If this activity were a tradition, and every year we completed it as a class, it would lose the authenticity of sharing their genuine experience and improving the lives of their peers. End-of-the-year reflection was a good habit to begin forming, and these letters to next year’s students were the manifestation of that habit.
3. Foster Inclusive Student Leadership
This year we had to ask if our actions led to the change we wanted to see in our school culture. Half of our students hadn’t set foot in our building prior to the beginning of this year, since most of our sophomores attended remote school their freshmen year. Because of this, little institutional memory was built between upper-class and lower-class students. Our current juniors and seniors hadn’t learned from older students how to behave or what to expect from typical high school life, and yet suddenly they were the older students.
We took this situation as an opportunity to align our organizational actions with the mission and vision of our school. For example, our student government structure was very linear, and the only way to express an active student voice was to be a part of our student government since freshman year. Unfortunately, this led to only a small segment of our student population advocating for all of our students, which was not aligned with our school’s vision with respect to equity and inclusivity.
As a result, we changed how a student could be a part of the student government by opening the application to any student in the school. We are starting to build a more diverse set of voices that truly reflect our student population and their interests. We recognized the alignment between our school’s commitment to creating a more inclusive culture and the need to change how our school operated.
I have been a teacher for nearly 20 years, and by far, this year has been my most challenging. I believe that change is difficult, and this year has required us to change more than any other year in teaching. No matter how difficult it is for us to change, we need to do it. The process of recognizing the needs of our students and adjusting to those needs is how we fully serve our kids.
The end of the school year and early summer is a fantastic time to reflect and recognize what you want to keep and what you want to change from the past year. This upcoming year, I plan on regularly celebrating throughout the year instead of jamming it all into the end. I imagine this will offer some time to build relationships, and it will be an investment that will pay dividends in student learning, collaboration, and belonging.
I will also look at what I do in the classroom as a teacher and out of the classroom as a school leader and not be afraid to challenge tradition as long as the change is intentional, aligning with our mission and vision for our school, and it leads to the development of good educational habits.