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Shaping Culture to Ensure Student Success

The following post is by NCTE member and 2015 Kentucky Teacher of the Year Sarah Reed. 
purple cowIn 2015 while at the Kentucky Society for Technology in Education (KySTE) conference, I stumbled upon a presentation by Heather Warrell, Vice Principal of School Culture and Instruction at Thomas Nelson High School (TNHS) in Bardstown, Kentucky. She inspired me to learn not only how their school used Google Drive as its infrastructure but also how their school underwent a cultural shift so that within two years they were able to achieve academically in the top 10 percent of the state.

So how did they build a positive school culture? By building and reinforcing an overarching theme through this vision: Thomas Nelson High School is founded upon the assumption that you deserve to live a happy life characterized by ample opportunity. To this end, a rigorous and relevant high school education is the most important element to give you the skills that will prepare you to be a future LEADER in whatever college or career path you choose.

TNHS also has rituals and ceremonies to celebrate success. “In the middle of the media center, we have a giant purple cow,” Warrell explained. “We have it there to remind us to be remarkable and not to be afraid to stand out. You see, without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. At TNHS, you are encouraged to stand out and try things that are new.” How wonderful, I mused. This school culture sets doing-things-differently as a core value and promotes it openly through a strong symbol that reminds everyone that a shared sense of commitment means stepping outside the lines, taking risks, breaking norms, and trying new things.

It reminded me of something I’d recently done in my own classroom when we hit the high seas and became pirates for a year. On the first day of school, I gave students all sorts of pirate props and then took pictures of them. They were so excited! A chance to be a pirate was exhilarating. When I encouraged them to write adjectives that compared themselves to pirates, each student set about creating a collage of powerful descriptions. The next day they found their work hanging outside the classroom for everyone to see. It served as a good reminder of what they believed they could be.

When I told my students to think of themselves as pirates and their pencils as swords, they lost their inhibitions and began a journey into self-efficacy. They learned not to give up. They worked together to hunt for the evidence to support their thinking. They consciously made informed decisions and collectively overcame adversity.

It takes work to actively shape a positive culture within our schools; one where everyone makes a difference and where every student feels successful.


sarahreedSarah Reed, Kentucky’s 2015 Teacher of the Year, is currently a third grade teacher at Field Elementary in Louisville. She has won three Gheens Innovation Awards and serves and supports her colleagues as chair for her school’s RTI and Arts and Humanities Committee.