Forging school culture through consistent routines

We’re leading through a tough moment in education for many reasons, one of which is that more school communities are grappling with chronic absenteeism. As a school leader, I know how hard it can be to develop a consistent, positive school culture when students are struggling with regular attendance. It’s not easy work, but it’s so important.

I’ve been in education for 32 years, working with grade levels from pre-K all the way to the university level. I’ve worked in historically “low-performing” schools, National Blue Ribbon Schools, schools that came close to being taken over by the state, schools in affluent areas, medical magnet schools – the whole gamut. Right now, I lead a school community that offers nontraditional pathways for students. We welcome and support students experiencing all kinds of life circumstances that impact their attendance. We also support a large population of newly arrived immigrant students from all over the world and welcome new students arriving literally every day of the year – right up to the last day of school.

No matter when a student arrives at our school, I want it to feel like home. That’s why I’ve doubled down on culture building. I want to share some of the practices we’ve implemented at my school – where inconsistent attendance is the norm – in hopes these ideas might work for some of my fellow school leaders. 

I prioritize consistent celebration above everything. 

Consistency is the key to creating a school culture that works. For me, it’s all about constant celebrations – of both our students and our staff. My motto has always been, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

Our students often come to us with emotional wounds, feeling rejected or insignificant. Some have been uprooted from their homes and are just beginning to settle in our country. It’s crucial for us to show them that we care and that we value their presence and education. This is the essence of our approach, and we’ve seen it make a difference in their lives. 

Below are three of the consistent celebratory routines I make time for:

1. A dependable celebration each day of the week

Whenever a student or teacher arrives at our school, I want them to feel a nonstop, positive celebration, so I repeat weekly celebratory routines.

Every Monday, every kid on our campus gets a lollipop with a positive quote wrapped around the stick, and every adult gets a fun-size M&M’s pack with a positive message.

On Tuesdays, we do “Teacher of the Day” celebrations, where a student of the week nominates a Teacher of the Day. We go to the teacher’s door, and we say, “Hey, you were nominated,” and we give them a little drawing of a plant in recognition of how their work plants seeds for the future. Our counselors also do an SEL exercise over the morning announcements. 

On Wednesdays, we honor the students of the week. After school, every teacher gets popcorn delivered to their classroom to signify that we’ve reached midweek – we’re “popping” through the week. 

Every Thursday is College Day, so we promote colleges by wearing school polos that promote a university, and counselors tell our students something about the pathways they could take.

Fridays are “Sweet Bye Friday.” I deliver a donut to every teacher’s door, and in our nontraditional pathway, we celebrate everyone who had perfect attendance that week.

So that’s our whole week repeatedly, over and over and over again. I believe in the power of patterns of behavior. Once you start something, you don’t stop. In school culture building, consistency matters for teachers just as much as for students. While this level of consistency requires high commitment, the investment is worthwhile.

2. “Teen Talk” video interviews

As a leader, I feel like I need to hear directly from my students as often as possible, so I implemented “Teen Talk” practice. I tap students in the hallway and invite them to my office for a video interview. I let them know that nothing they say is wrong. I tell them, “I want you to change an adult’s life.” 

I might ask, “How do you learn best?” or “Why do you think kids ditch school?” A kid might say, “I need one-on-one instruction when I get lost, or else I feel too uncomfortable, and that’s what leads to the ditching.” Or they say, “Teachers tell us to take notes, but no one ever taught me to take notes!”  

I also ask them, “What can an administrator at a big school do differently to help you guys?”

The same answers come up again and again: “Connect with us. Talk to us. Don’t assume the worst in us.” The conversations take about 10 minutes, and the students leave feeling heard and valued. I share the videos with my staff in weekly emails.

3. Frequent handwritten notes

Another thing I do is invest time in writing notes. I write birthday cards. I write welcome cards to brand-new students when they finish orientation. If a student finishes a week with perfect attendance, I write them a note. 

Once per month, our team members write two thank-you cards to students and one to each other. Right before that, I invite the kids to write one thank-you card to a teacher. I drop all these cards in the mail. Right now, I have 80 that I’m going to take to a mailbox and send out to all the teachers and kids. 

Is this a big time investment? Yes. But it’s worth it to me.

Of course, I have to acknowledge that carrying out these practices requires a tremendous investment of time and energy. But let me tell you: I’d rather spend my time writing positive notes and tying them to candy than breaking up fights. I’d rather spend my time proactively, sowing seeds of positive energy, than navigate tense dynamics between students or team members.

We don’t really have discipline issues this year. On our nontraditional side, we’ve seen zero fights. Success breeds success. Do I still have to fix stuff? Oh, heck yes. I’m still in the human business. Do I still have noise? Oh, yes. My school is not the land of unicorns and rainbows, but let me tell you, when I spend time on positivity and communicating care, I do get that time “back.”

I’m very loyal to my routines and patterns. And I know the teachers and students notice. On those rare Wednesdays when I get pulled away for a meeting and don’t make it to the popcorn, I’ll get texts: “Hey, slacker, who has our popcorn?” and “Hey, where’s my popcorn? Hey, bro?”

Once we established this culture, kids joining us from other countries or even from other comprehensive high schools feel the difference. They’ll say, “What’s going on here? We’re not used to this. I like this place.” In my Teen Talk videos, students often say, “I like this school because the teachers care.” They will say, “Right when you walk in, you feel this calm, soothing environment.” 

To me, that’s worth it. That culture is worth working for. Every small step we take builds toward a positive, celebratory school culture where students feel connected and welcome. No matter what challenges my students are experiencing, I believe that culture can keep them connected with school until they’re ready to graduate and forge their own path.