MRS. MIRIAM GETTINGER
We all have memories from our elementary school experience. One of my most poignant memories centers around a classroom discussion during Chanukah at the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami during an Ivrit class with the provocation as to whether or not Yehuda Maccabi would be proud or aghast were he to walk into our classroom two thousand years later! After all, it was a Jewish day school setting where we were speaking Hebrew, albeit dressed as American kids with bicultural values. Were we latter day Mityavnim (Mitamericaim?) or was the presence of a thriving Jewish school teaching a full complement of Tanach, Talmud and tefilla proof positive that the tenacious Chashmonai struggle had indeed guaranteed our spiritual survival through the millennia?
So potent was this instructional message that it has remained with me for decades, and I have shared the very same challenge with my own students and countless others over the years. Significantly, I recall the etymology conversation regarding the Hebrew word for culture, tarbut, which preceded the dramatic provocation. The noun tarbut had its cognate in the word rav reflecting prioritization of both quantity and quality. Cultural universals depict values through their own unique mores, highlighting that which is genuinely significant to their lifestyle.
School culture is first and foremost just that – a prioritization of values and aspirations which we impart to our students both overtly through our curricula and mission statements and, more significantly, subliminally through the very walls of the building, the kotlei bait hamedrash.
Ever a frustrated marketing enthusiast (having skipped kindergarten I simply do not possess the requisite artistic skills for this career) I am intrigued by radio commercials. One of my favorites is the ditty about “if your walls could talk” selling foundation repair services. From the ridiculous to the sublime, what do the walls and hallways of your building say about your school culture? What does an outside visitor see as foundational and fundamental in the school? A great deal, I submit.
From the key extrinsics of cleanliness, safety and organization to the significant ambiance of aesthetics and inviting warmth, even inanimate walls and halls speak volumes about ‘student voice’. In a literal sense, are the hallways quiet and orderly or abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm – clearly both have their time and place. I am not taking John Hattie’s Visible Learning too far by suggesting that student voice can somehow be visible in a school. Are student writing samples displayed and current? Are class projects and debates evident? In the course of having visited numerous and diverse schools I observed that often the walls are bare and monochromatic or have the same faded backing paper up from the start of the school year or last year’s project, devoid of that very critical opportunity for buzzing student voice.
Hattie’s work prioritizes evidence of student learning in the instructional process: from formative assessments to mid-lesson feedback, exit cards to exemplars, Socratic seminars to rubrics and learning target checklists, in order to ensure visible learning across the curricula and grade levels and maximize impact on our students’ learning. Student voice is evident throughout the building when a school’s culture is primed for that underlying message. If the arts are prioritized, then the hallways are alive with vibrant student creations, as well as photographs and documents that excite student conversation while passing through. Charts with suggested argument stems or verbiage for civilly disagreeing with peers might be posted in classrooms, as should students’ “hopes and dreams” in the lower grades, alongside the classroom rules per The Responsive Classroom socioemotional learning program. Perhaps the classroom blinds and window shades are decorated with meaningful content, such as a student painted periodic table or water cycle depiction in a science classroom. Maybe the bulletin boards are student generated and designed with their creative depiction of a pitgam or tzitut to inspire them in the tefilla room.
How do we best glean a school’s culture? Not by reading its mission statement, which I submit is little known and rarely recalled by its staff or board of directors. Rather we ought to borrow a best practice evaluative tool from the business world, the 360, wherein all stakeholders provide invaluable input into our school culture. Everyone in the school community is polled, from the maintenance crew to the office and cafeteria workers to the more obvious teachers, parents, and board members, and even the students themselves. Which adjectives would each of the groups use to describe the feel pulsating in the school? Is the school warm, inclusive, nurturing, professional and responsive? Can each of the groups articulate the school vision? Does the school demand academic rigor, invite student agency, collaboration and creativity? How are student speakers chosen for graduation and other programs? Is the middot award more coveted than a 4.0 GPA? Even a cursory review of a school’s handbooks and polices as well as their report cards depict their cultures. What standards of attendance and professional growth are demanded and how is teacher dedication and promise developed and acknowledged? Outcome based, what does the school aspire to in its graduates and alumni?
What is Not Prioritized?
Conversely, one can also tell a great deal about an institution’s culture by what is not prioritized and what is clearly relegated to the bottom of the barrel, perhaps in scheduling, room placement, and even the school calendar. Tefilla, by way of example, has a position front and center in our schools as this is the way Jewish children begin their day; some schools begin the day with davening and others reserve a second period slot for it so no one comes late for this sacrosanct activity. This sets a clear implicit tone and conveys a message to our talmidim and talmidot. But when are students pulled out of class for a myriad of reasons? When do we cut slack to teachers and students and when are we unyielding?
Surveys of all the above stakeholders as well as impartial outsider walkthroughs and assessments afford schools the opportunity to sincerely dig deeper and analyze the true culture they project, both within their walls and to the general community at large, and not merely the one they give lip service to. Three years ago, a distinguished national educator visited my school and taught me a wonderful trick in assessing school culture. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he walked over to random students across diverse age levels and asked them the following question: “What does Mrs. Gettinger think is important?” When he shared the results later, I was secretly hoping that most had mentioned derech ertez and citizenship in their responses but what I found out instead is that while many did note the significance of mentchlichtkeit to me, 100% of the older students queried added “learning, not grades!” It gave me pause as I had not realized how powerfully I had articulated that very message of a genuine chinuch “culture!”
Mrs. Miriam Gettinger has been a principal for the past 30 years, currently at the Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis and previously at the South Bend Hebrew Day School as well as at the helm of Bais Yaakov High School of Indiana. A graduate of Beth Jacob Teachers Institute of Jerusalem as well as Touro College, she has taught Limudei Kodesh to all ages from elementary to adult for over 40 years. Contact Mrs. Gettinger at email@example.com.