Illustrated portrait of Doug-Lemov
Photos: Getty; Illustration: Katie Martin
School Culture

How School Culture Must Change, Post-Pandemic

Doug Lemov explores the urgent need for schools to prioritize reconnecting with students post-pandemic, providing strategies for fostering a sense of belonging, resilience, and academic excellence.

June 9, 2023

Doug Lemov’s not a new name. A former teacher and dean of students, he burst onto the educational scene with his best-selling book Teach Like a Champion (2010), a collection of strategies to help busy teachers improve their classroom instruction. The book, now in its third edition—with nearly a million copies sold, according to the Washington Post—is responsible for improving classroom management and inspiring engagement in schools across the country. 

Now Lemov’s back on the radar with a new book that steps outside the confines of the classroom. Reconnect: Building School Culture for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging (2022), written with co-authors Hilary Lewis, Darryl Williams, and Denarius Frazier, explores the challenges of creating strong school cultures that Lemov says he has been concerned with for some time—well before the pandemic disrupted academic trajectories and caused years of social dislocation.

In fact, Reconnect suggests that many of the issues we link to the pandemic actually precede it, and probably arise, at least partly, from the detrimental effects of smartphones and social media use on mental health, trust in institutions like government and school, and our sense of social connectedness. The changes have materialized gradually but may be permanent, Lemov says, and schools must prioritize “reconnecting” with students in the post-pandemic era through intentional strategies that “rewire” environments in ways that make students feel both cared for and challenged to succeed academically.  

“We can’t turn back the clock,” Lemov writes, but what we can do is “plan and design our schools and classrooms differently going forward—not just for a year or two of ‘recovery’ but perhaps more permanently.” 

In our interview, we chatted about the rocky post-pandemic transition for kids, discussed the role of cell phones and our collective anxiety over their harmful effects on children, and reflected on how cultures that avoid discipline can sometimes end up imposing more of it.    

Boryga: What’s happening right now that makes “reconnecting” such a high priority?

Lemov: It’s always important for schools to foster cultures of belonging, but it's especially important now. The pandemic resulted in a historic academic crisis, but also historic levels of social isolation for students from all the institutions of their lives—including school. I don’t know of a single school leader who doesn’t think that kids came back from the pandemic different. They appear to have shorter attention spans, they struggle in social interactions with peers, they have more behavioral issues, and they struggle to persist with tasks. 

But I argue that there were factors before the pandemic that led to this, like phones. I believe the pandemic exacerbated the epidemic of smartphones and social media and the data suggests that phones are a significant driver of teenage anxiety, loneliness, and depression. Phones also have academic effects, too. A smartphone is an attention fracturing machine, and attention is central to every learning task. 

Boryga: Speaking of phones, you argue they should not be allowed in schools because they impede attention, learning, and authentic social interaction. Why do phones play such an outsize role in students feeling “less connected” from their schools and peers?  

Lemov: In addition to stealing away attention, phones are vehicles of social isolation and social disconnection. One student we interviewed for the book said that on the first day post-pandemic, she’s walking down the hallway expecting hugs and squeals of delight, but instead kids are on their phones and barely looking up at her. It made her think: “Why am I even here? I should just be on my computer zooming from my bedroom.” 

I think there is both a social and academic case for restrictions on cell phones, and there’s a reasonable range of options. The policy could be no cell phones at all, or it might be that your cell phone must remain in your bag, and if I see it, I'll take it. Maybe there is a ten minute break at lunch when you can use your cell phone. But what is not within that reasonable range is deciding that worrying about cell phones is not our business. 

When I went to high school in the 1980s you could smoke in school and the school tacitly supported it with designated student smoking areas. It sounds ridiculous now, but it’s true. I think we will look back on cell phones in the future and we won’t be able to believe that we exposed a generation of kids to a product we know is designed to be harmful to them and is designed to manipulate them psychologically, socially, and educationally. And we let it into the school building and we let it into their lives without rules or restrictions or qualifications.

Boryga: Most people know you from the success of Teach Like a Champion and the specific classroom management strategies you’ve advocated for over the years. This book focuses on the macro-environment in schools—what are the hallmarks, do you think, of a healthy school culture?

Lemov: One of the most important things you can feel in a classroom is a sense of belonging. We tried to understand what it takes for a school to communicate that to students. How can we send the constant message that you belong here, you're relevant here, you're part of a community. We were really influenced by Daniel Coyle's book, The Culture Code. He describes belonging as a flame that needs to be constantly fed by small signals of trust and connection. 

I think that in schools, our first instinct is to address the issue of belonging with a giant talk where we say the institution cares about you and you have a place here. But that is not as effective as wiring school environments such that every time you walk through the hallway someone is smiling at you and conveying that this is a place where you are valued.  

Boryga: You write that “interactions” in the classroom “must deliberately be orchestrated to build a sense of connection, belonging, and shared scholarly endeavor.” What does that look like in practice?  

Lemov: One of the foundational questions about the classroom we must ask is: Are people talking to each other, or past each other? A lot of times what we call discussions in classrooms are not discussions. They're a series of disconnected comments made in sequence. Often the single greatest motivator for a young student is the approval of their peers. If nobody talks after I've said something, it tells me that nobody cares. If I make my comment and the next person says, “Well, what I was going to say is…” that communicates that their answer is the same, regardless of what I just said, and, more so, what I said is irrelevant. 

I think we need to teach students what I call habits of discussion, which are tools that help students connect their ideas to others; they serve academic goals but also convey that what their peers are saying is important. We also talk about habits of attention, which are just as important. Those are the things students do when they’re not the active participant in class. We should teach students to do things like sit up when people are speaking, make eye contact with speakers, nod, and use other facial expressions that convey they’re listening and care. 

If we’re going to ask students to share things that matter, we can’t have them talking to the back of someone’s head, or to someone checking their phone. That body language says: “I don’t give a damn what you’re saying right now.” And who in their right mind wants to participate in an environment like that?

Boryga: How does discipline factor factor into a kid’s sense of belonging? And what do you do about kids who routinely flout basic rules of etiquette, even after interventions like reflection letters or other exercises that might be assigned? 

Lemov: If we want to build a great school culture, we can’t just tell people what not to do. We have to create a vision of what we want them to do, and how we want them to connect to each other and build each other up.

Suspensions are sometimes necessary, but they don’t usually work well. They’re kind of like a last resort, especially if you don’t have systems that deal with bad behavior. Instead, schools say: I’m just going to send you away.  

I think we’re a bit afraid of discipline in our culture, but ironically the result is that we end up with more and more enforcement because we’re not teaching the students who break the rules of institutions. Deans should have a curriculum—a lesson plan, just like in class. If a student has done something highly impulsive, they should have to read about the brain and the role of the amygdala and how you can change your impulsiveness and slow yourself down.

If there is a curriculum, it means when you’re sent to the dean of students there are activities designed to teach you, and you’re going to work hard. The goal is to teach you so you don't come back as opposed to just creating a disincentive through punishment. 

Doing this requires preparation and foresight. But deans of students often get little training. They have almost no tools. And yet we think that, magically, the eight toughest kids in the school are going to get sent to them and they’re going to talk the kids out of their behavior. If we give deans tools and training, they can do a lot more work to challenge students and change their behavior. There will always be kids who push us to the limits and to the extremes. But schools should be much more prepared to create thoughtful, challenging, and demanding interventions that educate students about their actions and also function as strong disincentives to make them wish they were back in class. 

Boryga: SEL strategies have become popular post-pandemic, and though you believe they’re a worthwhile response to students’ behavioral problems, you also write that some interventions have become “faddish.” What do you mean by that? 

Lemov: There’s a lot of valuable socio-emotional learning stuff out there. And there’s a lot of not so valuable social emotional learning stuff. You can spend a lot of time and resources on things that don’t actually make a big difference. The most valuable things to do are often counterintuitive. The research around gratitude, for example, is fascinating. I've actually seen it play out in a London school I visited called the Michaela School. It’s in a really tough part of London and a majority of kids live in poverty. Every day they have collective lunches where there’s a suggested topic of conversation and people look at each other and eat a family style meal. At the end, they have five minutes of appreciation where they take a moment to thank someone in their lives. It is an exercise in socializing students to express gratitude. And there’s a ton of research on how powerful this is. 

So much of what happens in nonproductive socio-emotional learning environments is we tell kids how fragile they are. Take microaggressions. When we educate children on microaggressions, we’re sometimes telling them to take every ambiguous interaction they have with someone and presume that ambiguous interaction represents that person’s disdain for them. Overdoing that can cause young people to see a world that has disdain for them, whereas in reality, the overwhelming majority of people in the world care about them and want them to be successful. 

Stress is another example. We often want to remove stress from students’ lives, but we don’t think about how some stress draws people together. Look at a sports team under stress. People rely on each other more, they optimize their performance. But in the classroom, we treat all stress like it is damaging. But if we teach students resiliency, and that stressful experiences can make you stronger and better, it can be an incredibly productive mindset intervention. 

The fact is, virtues like gratitude and resilience are cognitively beneficial to students—even those that have been through trauma. All the research on trauma shows that what gets people through trauma is resilience and the belief that you have the capacity to overcome harmful events. A few kids might still struggle, but those are the kids who will need the sort of professional, specialized support that goes beyond what we’re able to provide in the classroom. 

We have to teach students to believe in their own capacity to solve problems. I think young people are strong and if we help them get back to normalcy, they will get back to normalcy.

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