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The Power of School Culture

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    EL Education

Students, staff, and families are counting on school communities to be safe, affirming, and healing, whether classes are in-person, remote, or hybrid. Recognizing that academic equity and success depends on students’ social-emotional well-being, schools are seeking to create new structures or enhance existing structures that give teachers time and space to attend to their students’ needs in more holistic ways.

We believe that an essential element of this work is to cultivate an inclusive and empowering school culture that sends a clear message to all students: you are welcome here, we value you, we believe in your potential to do great things, and we will support you to do more than you think possible. At EL Education, we call this a Crew culture. See the power of Crew in action in a variety of EL Education schools in the video below.

For us, the word Crew actually means two things. It means a collaborative culture, where school becomes a team sport, rather than an individual sport, where a student’s job is not just to look out for herself, but for her classmates as well, working for everyone’s success. In addition, Crew is also a structure—a daily meeting structure—that supports students to be their best selves. Importantly, Crew also supports a strong and positive staff culture and can provide an enhanced structure for more traditional staff meetings.

Many schools across the country already have structures that are similar to Crew:

  • Staff meetings that support personal and professional health, growth, and transformation.
  • Advisory meetings for secondary students
  • Morning meetings for elementary students

Building on these structures can be a powerful tool to improve school culture.

Enhancing and Transforming a Staff Meeting Structure into a Staff Crew Structure

The primary limiting factor in creating a Crew culture in schools is the mindset and skills of staff. Regardless of what the posters on the wall say, students take their cue from what they see modeled in the school by adults: how staff members treat each other and treat students. Building staff Crew means dedicating staff meeting time to more than school business and academic planning. We suggest the following shifts from a more traditional staff meeting to a Crew meeting structure:

  • Involve staff in honest reflection about how they are doing, and about which staff members feel that they belong, or don’t belong, and why; and how to better support each other.
  • Make space for courageous conversations about race and identity, including personal identities and learning about the pernicious effects of racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of bias, and commit to work to address them.
  • Engage staff in conversations about how they are each embodying and modeling positive character for students (e.g., respect, courage, compassion, integrity).

Enhancing and Transforming an Advisory Structure into a Crew Structure

For schools that have an existing advisory program, we suggest the following key steps to enhance and transform that structure into more of a Crew structure:

  • Increase the time in students’ schedules currently used for advisory into Crews that meet for longer duration and, depending on your current structure, more frequently. In EL Education partner schools, student Crew meetings take place every day, or almost every day; many meet for a full academic period (and may be credit-bearing classes).
  • Create small, stable student Crews, typically 10-15 and decide if students will be in mixed grade Crews or if they will stay with their Crew over multiple years.
  • Meet with students in a circle (when in person), develop (with students) clear norms for communication, and support students to speak honestly about their academics, their lives, their challenges, and their growth, including the effects of racism, sexism, ableism, and stereotypes. Equip students to support each other to be their best selves.
  • Build or adopt a curriculum for Crew that allows you to support students to meet social-emotional and academic goals. Crew is not just a place for taking attendance and reading announcements. It is a place for students to grow and learn.
  • Center your college access and preparation process in Crew.

While it may be daunting to consider expanding, for example, a twice-a-month, 30-minute advisory to something closer to this depth, we believe the rewards can justify the time. Schools that tell us that they just can’t find the time to fit in Crew meetings are at the same time envious of the success of schools that do, especially when they see the respectful school climate, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates in these schools.

Enhancing and Transforming a Morning Meeting Structure into a Crew Structure

Our vision for elementary school Crew was inspired by the Responsive Classroom model of Morning Meeting, and we endorse the elements of that structure. In our book,We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to School Culture, and its accompanying videos, and online resources, we offer a number of additional elements that can enhance and transform the Morning Meeting structure to strengthen student belonging and to connect character growth with academic success:

  • Expand Morning Meeting in time and focus. We suggest adding closing Crew meetings to finish each day, and problem-solving Crew meetings as needed throughout the day.
  • Use time in Crew to teach students how to have courageous conversations and then make space for them to use those skills for honest and direct communication with one another (e.g., once a week, engage your Crew in an “Affirmations, Apologies, and Stands” protocol).
  • Practice academic reflections so that students can understand more about their academic identities.
  • Teach the tools of critique so that students learn to give kind, helpful, and specific feedback.
  • Address community issues and problems together with your Crew.

Crew can help teachers in any setting develop classroom cultures that nurture social-emotional and academic development, affirm diverse identities, support courageous conversations, foster belonging, and center authentic and trusting relationships, even when classes take place remotely. Crew is an engine that drives equitable outcomes for all students.

If you are interested in putting a Crew structure in place in your school or enhancing and transforming an existing structure such as advisory or Morning Meeting, the book We Are Crew: A Teamwork Approach to School Culture has everything you need.