Hidden Messages Your School Sends to Students

Once, at a staff meeting, my principal shared a short video he’d seen at an administrators’ conference.  It was an effort, I think, to talk about important things at mandated staff meetings, rather than simple announcements. Although there was a lot of eye-rolling when he cued it up, I thought it was worthwhile, with some apt observations about schooling.

One of those was a suggestion that if we wanted to assess what was most important to us, we should look at the times when the normal academic schedule was disrupted, and the student body gathered for an all-school assembly.

At that point in the school year, we’d had five assemblies:

  • An assembly on the first day, where students were welcomed, then informed which teacher would be leading them to their first hour class and giving them schedules.
  • An annual ‘rules’ assembly for each grade, where the assistant principal went through all the rules in the student handbook.
  • An all-school assembly to introduce the annual fund-raiser, and a follow-up assembly, two weeks later, to reward all the students who sold enough sausage and cheese with an hour out of class to play in bouncy castles and batting cages.
  • A fall sports assembly to recognize athletic teams.

I mentioned this to my principal, who asked tartly if I thought that our school was all about schedules, rules, fund-raising and sports? Why else would we be having assemblies? And did I think that bringing this up to the staff would endear me to him or anyone else?

Actually, I didn’t think our school was focused on administrivia or making money. I thought our teachers, pretty much, were doing interesting things in their classrooms, and our students were offered a nice variety of meaningful activities and clubs.

During the time I taught there, we hosted Holocaust survivors, who sat on folding chairs in front of the bleachers, holding microphones, 800 silent students listening intently to their stories. We also had square dancing assemblies where everyone participated, concerts where band and choir students performed for their peers, and student drama productions. It was—still is—a good place to teach.

But the idea stuck in my head: What are the hidden messages in our conventional school practices?

I learned about the hidden curriculum while working on my masters degree, back in the 1970s, reading Michael Apple and Philip Jackson. It made perfect sense then. But it didn’t much impact my teaching or the hundreds of embedded habits that shaped practice in my building, from 55-minute periods to detentions to tracking.  School was school, and like most teachers, my M.O. was ‘go along to get along.’ It took a long time and a lot of courage to ever raise a question around Things We Always Do.

Why? Because teachers who rock the boat aren’t popular.

A colleague who asks about changing the grading system, or altering the discipline policy, will face a lot of resistance, even if those practices are harming students. It took my district years to pass a ‘no paddling’ policy, even after 95% of the staff had stopped physical punishments, knowing they were cruel and pointless.

I thought about that video when I read Alfie Kohn’s tweet this week:

The entrance area that greets visitors to a typical high school contains two things: evidence (in the form of trophies) that its students triumphed over students from other schools & plaques listing which of its students are better than others. Assignment (for administrators, teachers, and kids): Design a school lobby that reflects a commitment to collaboration and community rather than to sorting and triumphing.

The tweet rang my chimes. I once brought a First Division band festival plaque to the Athletic Director (who had the keys to the showcase) and asked if it could be displayed. He explained that no, the showcase–actually, all the showcases–were for athletic accomplishments. I should hang the band’s plaque on the band room wall. Those showcases, of course were not in the gym, the locker room or athletic department hallway. They were four of them in a main entrance to the school commons, and filled with ancient, often rusting, exemplars of Teams Gone By, people whose names nobody knew.

The not-so-hidden message there, of course, was Sports First, other student accomplishments not so much–a sentiment familiar to many debate coaches, drama club advisors, journalism sponsors, robotics volunteers and National Honor Societies.

I did hang the plaque on the wall of the band room, and added several more, over the years. When I left the job, my successor took them all down and mailed them to me in a cardboard box. So much for tradition and pride in the program.

Kohn’s challenge is right on the money: How can schools challenge their students to build strong communities that bring out the best in all students? How should this be reflected in the school environment?
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