Years ago I had the good fortune to be trained as a classroom-based consultant to schools. Part of that training included summer seminars with other teachers from around the country and an introduction to organizational development. One of the prominent researchers at the time was an MIT professor named Edgar Schein who taught us that culture underlies everything in a school, business, or university, and that it is a blend of “artifacts, espoused values, and underlying assumptions.” For a school, culture is built and expressed through story, traditions, rites, rituals, and how the institution responds to challenges.
When thinking about culture, it is common to assume it is apart from us; it is hazy and amorphous, and it can’t be changed. The opposite is true—culture is observable; it is malleable, and we actually have agency over it because culture is built incrementally in moments of meaning and connection—Parent/Guide Student Conferences; Circle Drive and the interactions there; Project Week Presentations; Pitsos; volunteering in the Creek Library; musical concerts; Gates of Life; Commencement; games and athletic contests; Singing Songs; Upper Elementary Winter Market; cross-campus field days; the list is exceedingly long.
So, just when I thought I knew Headwaters deeply and understood our culture, the school surprised (and delighted) me again. Over the past few weeks a group of us have been preparing for our upcoming Common Threads
presentation (formerly called Curriculum Nights), and this one is focused on Social & Emotional Learning and Wellness. Unlike a discreet academic subject like math or science, we realized quickly that there’s no one place we could go to see how the school approaches social and emotional learning (SEL) or wellness. In fact, we learned very quickly that our approach to these important topics, behaviors, mindsets, habits, and skills is baked into our identity as a school and that our approach is unique because it is intentionally integrated.
Here’s a quick example: a key part of our culture (and an important manifestation of our approach to SEL) is the fact that we call each other by first names, a practice that dates back to the earliest days of Primavera and Khabele. We call each other by first names because we have observed and believe that students learn best from people they trust and respect. Titles and hierarchy can (and often do) interfere with the health of that relationship. Furthermore, we believe deeply that part of the magic of our school is that students, at all stages of their education, can advocate for themselves and that our school is a practice field for that self-advocacy. Self-advocacy and getting used to advocating for oneself is a little less daunting if we know a person’s name and know we can approach them.
As we looked harder at SEL and Wellness, we discovered that our approach is even more deeply ingrained than we first thought. The conventional administrative trappings of a program, like a department chair, were missing. Instead, we’re all responsible for this work, and part of our intent is to include parents in the work too.
We found that SEL happens when a student’s day begins—whether it’s Centering or Community Circle or hanging up their things and choosing a piece of work. All of us who work closely with the students do our best to be an extension of the “prepared environment”—to exude equanimity so the student feels seen, known, and held. It continues during the work period and early morning classes if/when a student expresses confusion with an activity, and it continues outdoors during a brain break, recess, lunch, an advisory activity, again the list is long.
Though the graphic above isn’t comprehensive, it does show how (and where) the elements of SEL exist and how they are part of a student’s day. Those of us who have taught or worked closely with children know that equanimity is a lofty expectation, and there are days when some of us come up short, but we believe deeply that for us the process of how we learn, how we approach each other, and how we engage in community is a key part of “the product” of a Headwaters education. Our relationships, environments and culture fuel curiosity so that all students can know themselves and make meaning.