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The School Community: Building a Sense of (Remote) Belonging Online, Webinar Recap

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

We at K-12 Clothing recently partnered with SquadLocker to host a webinar titled “Building A Sense of School Community Online.” K-12 Clothing’s co-founder, PTA-mom, and frequent speaker in this area, Debora Jones, and SquadLocker’s K-12 Account Executive with 25 years experience in supporting schools, Karen Silveira, gave valuable insights on the subject of building community in times of virtual education. The panel was expertly moderated by Jeanne Hopkins, a marketing veteran and SquadLocker’s CRO. In case you missed the webinar, it was recorded and this blog will recap the key takeaways.

What is school culture?

School culture is the relationship between students, teachers, school administration, and other individuals in the environment and their beliefs, perceptions, and values that made up the school’s culture. School culture massively impacts children since it is such an integral part of their day. It gives them a sense of belonging in an environment that is truly their own, unlike that of work or home.

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Why does school culture matter?

Culture, generally, plays an important role in our lives. For example, if you look in the business world, businesses with a good culture are often the ones that go on to be successful. The same, can be applied to schools. There is a body of research that shows that a positive school culture produces more successful, confident, and engaged students since they have a solid support system in place.

Similarly, negative cultures in educational institutions lead to an inverse effect on the student. Students don’t succeed; they feel ostracized and find themselves in a challenging environment surrounded by distractions that take away from the purpose of their education, which is to learn and develop. So, it is not just important to support a positive school culture, but it is also equally important to dispel any negative cultures by emphasizing qualities such as productivity, communication, and collaboration.

How do you create a school culture?

There are many ways a school culture has traditionally been created. For instance, in a religious school they actively use religion to create the culture. Non-religious institutions, in contrast, turn to the administration to clearly define the school’s values. In either instance, the more clearly defined the values are, the easier it will be for teachers and other students to implement them.

Regardless of the type of school, there are many ways to reinforce the school’s culture. Apparel can play a big role in supporting culture. A student’s self-esteem is directly related to how well they’ve integrated into their community, and there are many ways to make sure that that sense of community develops. Apparel can promote inclusivity as it removes the aspect of children feeling left out because of what they are or are not wearing. In the parochial school system, this apparel focus is often on uniforms whereas in public schools, spirit wear plays a bigger part.

School events are another big way to support the culture. Humans are inherently social creatures, and they’ve missed interacting over the past couple of months. So, now that school is back PTAs and PTOs are working on drawing the community together by introducing new ways to interact with virtual activities and/or socially distanced events.

Finally, the way student interactions are handled, particularly on the playground, is a common way to support school values. For example, if kindness is a cultural value, ensuring that disputes are solved through kindness first, can go a long way in reinforcing that cultural norm.

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How does one create or support a school culture in the current situation?

Of course, the current pandemic switched things around and schools had to adjust. Schools in over thirty-three states are opting for a virtual or hybrid model of education. As creatures of habit, any kind of change is unsettling, and the change brought about by the pandemic is an adjustment. But schools have done a good job so far and now it is time to support their school culture virtually. Some ways to do that are as follows:

  • Engaging in open and honest communication in a timely manner. Teachers, parents, and students should be kept in the loop about how things are going, regardless of whether or not plans are concrete. Not only will this satiate anxiety, but it will also make for good collaboration, a positive cultural attribute. The PTA or PTO can play a big role in this communication as they often have good access to information as well as multiple communication avenues to parents.

  • Focusing on supporting productive work environments - this will minimize any distractions and negative experiences. Where possible, doing a dry run of any technology before the first day is helpful.

  • Creating a visual connection via apparel. Students can still feel like they are part of the school community as they learn from home by wearing their uniforms or spirit wear during Zoom classes. This can include a policy requiring uniforms daily or making a designated "spirit day" for all to wear their school apparel.

  • Use of collaboration features in technology. For example, Zoom has breakout rooms for smaller group sessions and the use of these can foster different social connections and more collaboration.

  • Creation of classroom activities that support the cultural attributes of the school. SeeSaw, for instance, is a great application to use because it includes a lot of interactive activities that can be molded to fit the values that you want to promote.

  • Continuation of social activities that promote the school’s cultural attributes. Again, PTAs and PTOs are a key element here as they are often big drivers of the school’s social calendar. Continuing with activities virtually, or safely in-person, will help people to feel connected and will help to reinforce the values. One example is to host a “one school, one book” event online and have the book discussion focus on how the school’s values were represented in the book.

  • Continuation of school policies regarding dispute resolution. Although playground incidents don’t come up as often online (and the format tends to be in chat), there are still student disputes and applying the same resolution techniques, albeit virtually, is important in continuing to support the school’s values.

How do we support our teachers in the creation of a positive school culture?

A lot of this change in education has fallen on the shoulders of teachers to navigate. To support them, schools need to exercise greater flexibility when it comes to their teacher’s time commitments. Teachers should also be given support when it comes to running new technology and software instead of being left to fend for themselves. It’s important to not hold teachers to traditional standards in an environment that is anything but traditional. It is also important to give teachers due time to adjust to these changes and handle them efficiently. A model that has been employed by at least one district is to set aside one day for teachers to lesson plan and/or pre-record lessons, making the rest of the week lighter. During this day, the students can do their "specialty" classes, which vary by district, but often include things such as music and art. Finally, we can all support our teachers by remembering to say thank you! It is simple but very effective.

By putting in place some of the tips above, you will help to support your school’s culture while we navigate this new educational environment.

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