George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Culture

Routine, Ritual, and School Community

Build a positive school culture and climate for students and staff alike by creating expectations around constructive routines and fun rituals.

November 19, 2015

"Building a strong sense of community in schools is both important and doable," says Eric Schaps. And as Thomas Sergiovanni writes in Building Community in Schools, "In communities, we become connected for reason of commitment rather than compliance" (p.58). Sergiovanni believes the connectedness is motivated by our essential human need "for a sense of belonging, of being connected to others."

OK, great. So how do we, as educational leaders, get that buy-in, that commitment to create a strong sense of community within our district, school, or classroom? This post will illustrate the connection between culture, climate, and community, and will provide examples of ways that school and classroom leaders have built a sense of community through the use of routines.

Culture + Climate = Personality + Attitude

Steve Gruenert describes culture as an organization's personality and climate as its attitude (PDF). Those who would follow the current leadership cannot choose the culture of the school they enter. Yet they still seek to be part of it. Columnist Barbara McKee wrote, "Belonging to a community is a choice." If new followers hope to belong to your school, they will need to understand the way things are done, the culture and the manner in which they are completed, and the climate. One way for a leader to help transmit the values and norms of a school is by embedding them into routines.

In their book School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker describe routines as the things that leaders do to help the school run efficiently, with rituals being the "stylized expressions of our values and beliefs." When informed by the mission of the school or classroom, over time routines become the norm. Routines become rituals that followers come to expect.

The following video from Edutopia demonstrates community building in action through the use of a morning meeting routine. Leaders speak of the benefits to student learning, improved attendance, and fostering a sense of community:

Pledges, Cheap Entertainment, and Celebrations

Here is an example of a schoolwide routine that fostered a sense of community among the entire student body and staff. At Adams School in Castine, Maine, each day begins with a pledge of some kind. The pledges ranged from the serious (the Pledge of Allegiance) to the silly (a Jerry Spinelli ode to bats). The intent, according to then-Principal Todd R. Nelson, was to create a schoolwide "meaningful morning ritual."

Here is how I used a routine pledge to create a sense of community at a classroom level. After a lengthy discussion with my first-grade class about the difference between a student and a scholar, we designed a simple 23-word statement called The Scholarly Pledge, which we recited each morning to set the tone for who we were and how we intended to behave that day. The pledge began as a routine, but after consistent recitation and reference to it throughout the day, it became a ritual. Students would remind me if we forgot to recite it. It was like an athlete putting on sporting gear in the same sequence and style before each competition. The ritual emotionally prepared students to engage. It gave them a sense of community and belongingness, as Sergiovanni stated.

Similarly, but with a group of adults, a former principal of mine opened each faculty meeting with what he called "cheap entertainment and celebrations." For the cheap entertainment, he would recite a self-penned, humorous poem about our school, ask us to share with one another the worst movie we had ever seen, or play a bit of trivia about our district and reward correct answers with candy bars. Next, he would share something special about an individual, class, or the school as a whole. The sharing was intended to celebrate all the positive work that the people of our school had done.

By January, this routine had become an expectation, a norm, a ritual that we all looked forward to. Other teachers were engaging in the "cheap entrainment" with him. People were nominating others for celebrations. We teachers began looking for positives in our teammates. We felt more connected as we shared silly personal preferences and serious professional accomplishments through an established routine that had become ritualized.

Students and adults want to belong to their school culture. In this post, you've watched or read about leaders providing followers with ways of belonging through the use of morning meetings, a unique pledge, or ritualized celebrations. Examine the personality of your classroom or school -- the culture. Assess the climate in which everyone works, learns, and builds together. Consider routines that speak to your followers' sense of belongingness. Then, design and implement routines that give your followers an opportunity to become part of your unique community -- routines that, over time, will become ritualized norms of the school culture.

In the comments section below, I invite you to discuss the routines and rituals of your school.

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