Gone are the days of students sitting in rows of desks, waiting to receive instruction from a teacher at the front of the classroom, fearing the discipline that would result from breaking a rule. This antiquated model never prioritized a positive learning environment — it should not be part of today’s schools.
A healthy school culture is marked by collaboration between teachers and students. An environment that promotes co-leadership among students and teachers can help foster student agency, trust, learning and community.
Rules vs. Norms
Historically, classrooms were structured around rules that teachers created — formally written down, describing how students should perform and enforced by a person of authority. In this framework, students are expected to understand and follow the rules or face predetermined consequences outlined in the student code of conduct.
In reality, most people don’t mindlessly abide by articulated rules; rather, they adhere to social norms. Norms are standards of behavior shaped and enforced by peers, families, neighbors, or communities. Norms are much more powerful than rules and can be disruptive to education, particularly if they differ from the formal rules a school is trying to enforce. When the rules and the norms aren’t in alignment, the school community often struggles, and the adults may feel that many of their students are “disruptive”, “behave badly” or are “bad influences.”
Leading through Norms
Students who break the formal rules are often labeled as “bad kids.” But when you peel back the layers of their lives, you see that they are merely behaving in ways that are consistent with the applicable social norms, such as school or family.
Leaders should focus on aligning the rules and norms in their schools, ensuring they are consistent and that there’s no confusion about expectations. Students, staff and administration should be on the same page, understanding, following, and enforcing the same principles.
Camelot Education schools, where I serve, follows this model of positive normative culture. Most of our programs are in urban neighborhoods where business investment, resources, and opportunities are often limited, and where students frequently grapple with violence, trauma and insecurity. Truancy, academic and behavioral challenges were common among our students. Leading through norms and engaging student leaders enabled us to create a stable, self-sustaining, healthy environment.
Students help reinforce school-based norms. For instance, a student leader might call out a disruptive peer by saying, “Around here, we don’t speak over each other.” Usually, when faced with pressure from a respected classmate, the student will understand that the pro-social norms in the school don’t accept that behavior and will stop the disrespectful actions. Engagement and intervention by students are crucial components of a positive normative culture.
Teachers direct the education sessions and offer additional support when necessary. But the goal is for the norms to be the rules of the student body, with students and teachers acting as co-leaders of the culture. This is how the culture becomes self-sustaining.
Identifying Student Leaders
Any student can become a leader, regardless of past struggles. In fact, many such students already are recognized as leaders by their peers, but often enforcing negative social norms.
In our co-leadership model, student leaders use their influence to support pro-social norms through leadership-by-example. Specifically, they should consistently perform well in school, have good attendance, and be willing to engage when a peer acts outside the norms.
For instance, at Camelot students are eligible to join student government following three consecutive weeks of demonstrable positive attendance, behavior and academic performance. Student government is highly respected within our schools because it gives students voice and elevated status, in and outside of school. Students who join are paired with a mentor, and receive training about school norms and conflict resolution, and meet with teachers, the principal and other school leaders. They are required to write an essay about how they can add value to the campus. This process underscores the importance of the work that student leaders do in our school community, gets school staff to help engage students, and helps students understand the power of their voices as leaders.
Building a Positive, Self-Sustaining Culture
Student leadership is not about letting students run the campus. It’s about empowering students to share leadership with teachers for the betterment of the school community. It’s about students taking responsibility for their behavior, leading by example and enforcing pro-social norms. It’s also about students and teachers collaboratively investing in their environment, ultimately promoting a positive, self-sustaining culture.
Joseph Carter, EdD, is Camelot Education’s Superintendent of Schools and currently oversees the daily operations of Camelot’s programs and schools. He earned his doctorate in education from the University of Houston, has two master’s degrees, is a certified superintendent and principal, and holds certifications in Special Education and English as a Second Language in multiple states.
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