The Critical Tool in Creating Healthy Learning Environments


The Critical Tool in Creating Healthy Learning Environments

by Anthony S. Muhammad, Ph.D.

As schools and systems struggle to focus and align the talents of the diverse members of their organization, one critical tool stands out more than any other.  That tool is language.  Language is our auditory expression of thought.  Whoever controls the language controls the organizational thinking.  During the three years and 34 schools studied to create my book, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division (2009), there was a distinct difference between a “healthy” school culture and a “toxic” school culture. 

 Healthy school cultures have been defined by Kent Peterson from the University of Wisconsin in the following manner:

Healthy school cultures have an unwavering belief in the ability of each student to achieve success and they pass that belief on to others in overt and covert ways.  Educators create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the ability of every student. (Cromwell 2002)

Peterson’s definition gives us insight into the inner-workings of a healthy and productive culture and his description informs us that there are two major components.  A healthy culture begins with a belief in children, but it does not stop with just belief alone.  Healthy cultures also institutionalize their belief through a series of policies and practices that align with their belief system.  The practices of a healthy culture are aligned with their publicly stated belief in the ability of every student.

Toxic school cultures have also been defined by Kent Peterson and he describes them like this:

Toxic cultures believe that student success is based solely upon a students’ level of concern, attentiveness, prior knowledge, and willingness to comply with the demands of the school, and they articulate that belief in overt and covert ways.  Educators create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the impossibility of universal achievement. (Cromwell 2002)

Like in a healthy culture, toxic cultures start with a belief system, and that belief system grows and metastasizes into being institutionalized through policies, practices, and procedures. 

Organizational Language

Based upon the definition given by Kent Peterson on healthy and toxic culture, it is apparent that they are very different.  The focus of a healthy culture is on the success of students and the term “unwavering”, within its definition, describes the resolve of the educators in those environments.  The term “unwavering” uncovers the fact that healthy school cultures recognize that students will arrive at school with different backgrounds, readiness levels, support, and commitment, but despite this diverse group of obstacles, they stay steadfast in their goal of high levels of learning for all of their students. 

What language did educators use in a healthy school culture?  They used the language of problem-solving.  This language expressed a certain level of pragmatism that understood that problems will always exist, but the important thing is the way that we process and react to those problems.  Schools are infamously known for their lack of predictability.  Anytime you take hundreds of students from hundreds of different backgrounds and try to create a harmonious organization with one well defined goal, problems will arise.  But, even in the face of this challenge, the educators that I studied practicing in healthy schools displayed an unusual calm that allowed them to analyze the problem, hypothesize, and propose and develop an experiment with the goal of eliminating the problem. 

How did this problem-solving based language sound?  The first observable characteristic was calm.  In the healthiest schools in my study, they had a calm or coolness that was very easily observed.  Whenever a dilemma presented itself, they automatically started discussing a course of action.  It was very natural.  Healthy school cultures owned their problems.  Their language was prescriptive as opposed to descriptive.  Like in other schools, they got tired, angry, and even frustrated, but their resolve did not change.  Some of the phrases that were very common in the face of a challenging event were:

  • What do we do about it?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • Let’s discuss it later?
  • Who do we need to get involved to solve this problem?

An important fact to note is that this language and disposition was modeled by school site administration in each and every case.  So, it is safe to say that leadership sets the tone in the formal setting for what teachers will discuss and process in the informal setting.  The irony in this situation is that site administration does not get access to the informal part of the organization, so the application of the language and disposition lie on the shoulders of the teachers and other non-administrative staff.

If healthy cultures have a language, what is the language of a toxic culture?  A toxic culture’s language is rooted in frustration and emotion.  Their language is descriptive and not prescriptive. Unlike a healthy culture, a toxic culture assigns blame for problems instead of owning the problem and collaborating to solve the problem.  This disowning of the problem does not create an environment that nurtures self-reflection and collaborative organizational movement. 

When confronted with issues, toxic cultures rely on an explanation of the problem in order to excuse themselves from any responsibility to solve the problem.  So, consequently the language of a toxic culture focuses exclusively on the external forces that make their professional practice difficult and the organizational goals unattainable.  This language is rooted in exasperation and flabbergast.  Language often heard in a toxic culture when faced with a challenge or an obstacle:

  • I can’t believe that ……happened!
  • This is ridiculous!
  • Can you believe……..?
  • Someone needs to do something about this!
  • If only……..this problem would not exist!

If these phrases are a regular part of the interaction between staff members, the culture is toxic, and no meaningful growth will happen until the paradigm of that culture changes.  Toxic environments by nature, do not allow anything of value to grow.

Practice New Language

As America faces new and compelling challenges in our educational system, we have to be poised to move with the times and deliver the type of services that our community deserves.  I recognize that change has to happen at every level (site leadership, district leadership, and state and federal leadership) and I will deal seriously with these issues in the very near future, but the most powerful place to start is in the teacher culture.  Teachers control the informal organization, and the language of that segment of the organization is paramount to the growth of schools.  I would agree with many teachers that leadership, in many cases, make their jobs much more difficult than it needs to be.  But, we know from labor statistics that the average tenure of a principal is 3.2 years at a school site and the average tenure of a teacher at a school site is 12.4 years (Sparks 2002).  The teachers will be at a school a lot longer than the average administrator.

School cultures are not considered “healthy” or “toxic” based upon publicly stated beliefs and dogma.  Their health or toxicity is determined by the consistent day-to-day interactions of their members.  What can you can control?  You can control what you express and what you allow others to express to you?  Avoid conversations and interactions where the goal is to detach from issues and assign blame to others.  Challenge those who use the informal venue to draw others into their downward spiral of blame to use their energy to come up with solutions to problems that are apparent to all and will not solve themselves. 

With practice and consistent application, you will start to notice a new ethos.   You will start to see colleagues work together and use their talents to make the school a happier and more productive place for everyone.  The line between the formal and informal organizations will be erased.  Trust will build and we will not waste human capital and potential.  I am not promising that this new way of expression and focus will be easy, but it is well worth it.  Your school will sing a new song.  Are you willing to take the brave plunge?

Works Cited

Cromwell, S. (2002). “Is Your School Culture Toxic or Positive?” Education World 6(2): 1.

Sparks, D. (2002). High Performing Cultures Increase Teacher Retention. Results, National Staff Development Council: 2.