There has been a growing recognition over the past number of years of the critical importance of school culture, and an accompanying wealth of books attempting to tackle this (I use this opportunity to meekly link to my own 2021 attempt, Culture Rules), but no book explores this more pertinently, in my view, than Reconnect.
The book begins with an outline of the problem, and in this section I felt a searing recognition of what schools feel like to me post-pandemic. According to the authors, not only did children fall behind academically and socially, but the pandemic also changed the nature of the relationship between home and school.
But authors also note that pandemic exacerbated an already present epidemic of mental health concerns in young people, chiefly driven by a rise in social media and particularly portable devices which infiltrate the minds of the young. One horrifying statistic cited is that during lockdown daily screen use for 8-12 year olds went from 5.5 hours a day on average to over 8.5 hours a day.
The book situates this within a context of communities losing trust in institutions and how this is played out in schools: “schools can no longer count of receiving the goodwill and trust of the parents they serve.” This resonated for me, and reminded me of this shocking blog post’s words:
“Education feels broken. As though we are cascading towards a watershed moment where school leadership becomes nothing but dark, confusing and unfulfilling. There was a time when being a school leader meant something. It’s harder to feel that right now. Post pandemic, as a school leader I feel more abused, more hated, less appreciated and generally less effective than at any other time during my 20 year tenure as a head teacher… My inbox is full of police notices, alerts for safeguarding concerns or behaviour logs, moans, resignations, complaints about cost or resources, and general issues not about a good education.”
The Reconnect authors cite buckets of research data to support their analysis of the issues, and dig into the details and complexities more than a short blog post will do justice to. Typically for a Lemov work, though, he doesn’t spend too long dwelling on the issues. Most of the book is spent on ways we can fix it through building a great school culture.
This begins through exploring examples of the mindset leaders must have – largely, know what you believe about education and know what you think a great education should look like, and from that starting point genuinely listen to young people and the community you serve, open the dialogue, and evolve practices where you need to.
The book’s central thesis is that culture is all about connection, and the need for connection drives us. This is amply evidenced by findings from human psychology, and exemplified with classrooms across the US and UK. In one section, the authors say that we can rebuild faith in schools by being “really good at the core work of schooling” as well as by helping young people “feel a strong sense of purpose.” In the best schools I’ve worked in, this manifests itself in sky high expectations, consistently enforced by all members of staff, coupled with a rigorous academic curriculum which is well taught by teachers who are motivated and equipped (in terms of both time and resources) to do this well, and lessons which create a sense of accomplishment for young people, where they can clearly see they are learning and feel themselves knowing more, being able to do more.
In fact, what is so heartening is that so many of the suggestions to build school culture are really ways to get children to learn lots. Because that, of course, is the ultimate goal. It is rare, though not unheard of, for a child to be extremely successful at learning and to not buy into their school. It is the teacher in the classroom who can create the conditions for success to ensure all children can learn, and that’s the first and most important step in creating a great school culture.
Indeed, the authors write that once we have crystalised our values, we need to make all our classroom decisions in the light of these:
“If my fundamental belief is that each young person in my classroom is capable of excellence; if I believe that caring involves not just pushing each of my students to give their individual best every day but also pushing them to do their part to build a mutual culture where they bring the best out of each other – if I truly believe those things, what should my classroom then look like? How should students sit? How should they talk to each other? What should they do when someone else is talking? What should they do when I ask them a question and they are not sure of the answer?”
What young people need from schools, now more than ever, is to feel like they belong. We need to envision our classrooms and our buildings as places where young people are seen, where they are heard, where they are loved, and where all the interactions reinforce that.