I have been in every high school in Utah and have been in most more than once. Although each visit may have been short, first impressions resulted in generalizations and opinions that have often lasted longer than they deserve to last. These first opinions may not necessarily be correct, but whether correct or not, they often label a school in my mind. I am inclined to say that such and such school is either good or bad based on a small impression that did not even include sitting in a classroom and listening to a teacher conduct class. How can I help from doing this when I enter a school, look up at the ceiling and wonder how tobacco chewers can spit that high?
It was an errand the father was trusted with and it also created a first impression of a school. I hope this first impression was correct. All I had to do was to drop off my son's cello at the middle school. A cello is hard for a student to carry on a bike.As I arrived, students were raising the flag at the school and appeared very businesslike. It had been neatly folded - Boy Scout style - and was now being tied securely against the morning breeze.
I found the office and asked if I could leave the cello for safekeeping until my son could pick it up. "Why don't you just take it down to the music room. If the door is locked just leave it outside the door."
"Will it be all right? I wouldn't want it broken."
"All the kids leave their instruments out and the teacher slips them inside the door when she gets here."
There was a tangle of instrument cases outside the door and it was true; they didn't get bothered. The thought did occur to me that musical instruments could not be left piled in the hall outside the door in every school without threat of theft or vandalism.
This impression became a first generalization about the school as I walked back to the car and noticed clean halls and full trash cans. Student work decorated the commons area. Students were beginning to funnel into classrooms with loads of books and papers. A couple of teachers were in the hall exchanging gentle wisecracks and greetings with the students.
Of course, there is more to a good learning climate than can be observed during a short errand to the school. The point is that some schools really do feel like places where people learn, while others feel very generic and some even feel like some kind of minimum security correctional facility.
It may be that the people who live in the places we call schools from day to day have been in the forest for so long that they don't recognize the trees and don't notice day after day whether or not the school feels like a good place to learn. I went in a room once that was called the learning resource center. There were no books in plain view; otherwise it might have been called by the old-fashioned but still very proper term library.
The point is that the room didn't feel like a place to learn and I'm not exactly certain why.
A learning climate may not be just a function of good housekeeping and appropriate decoration. It may be more than a display of fine art and sculpture or a corner reserved for pictures of prominent alumni. It may be more than bulletin boards and displays that change frequently and prominently displayed student work. A good learning climate is certainly beyond dress and grooming standards.
The learning climate is probably some kind of shared learning ethic or attitude that is perpetuated by the students as they mimic the faculty. The attitude may be the natural result of students knowing that people work hard at a school. The students know this because teachers are examples of hard work and the achievements of faculty and students are formally recognized.
There is public recognition for superior academic performance.
The first impression only starts to reveal the learning climate of a school, but it is wonderful when a first impression points in the right direction.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84626.