One of the schools I’ve worked with in the past has an incredibly nice atmosphere. The head is pretty lovely too, which is possibly why the school is, but she doesn’t always remember how important that is in her primary school.
Imagine pulling into a parking lot surrounded by crab apple, rowan and cherry trees, walls draped in Virginia creeper. You walk into the front door and immediately get a sense that it’s not just a child friendly place, but a child led place. The office counter is low so the staff can see the faces of children coming into the place, giving the impression that little people are indeed important.
The school’s achievements are on display at child level and photographs of clubs and academic achievements line the cheery yellow walls. Children walking in the halls are friendly and greet you not just politely but warmly as well.
Walking past classrooms, you can see children’s’ writing on display in the classrooms showing that it’s a place where the adults value student work. Students are busy and engaged in individual or group work. Teachers move about the classroom, squatting down to interact with the children on their level.
Things just seem to be working.
Transition to break time has a tone of controlled excitement as classes tidy up their work and line up ready to go outside to play. Noticeably absent is any sense of anxiety, these children are not worried about play time. They’re looking forward to it. Bullying is clearly absent.
It’s just… lovely.
Lovely is the right word for it.
It’s an environment any sane parent would be overjoyed to have their children participate in. And they are. The school is consistently oversubscribed.
That environment, that atmosphere in a primary school is something especially important in Japanese culture. It’s a time of life where children are nurtured. They’re not tested, drilled or assessed at every turn. They sing, they draw, they eat together (teachers too) and they read and write interesting stories and projects.
They talk a lot about it. It’s not apparent from the outside, but within Japanese society, it’s huge. It’s incredibly important and what I’ve noticed is that while we don’t actually focus on the idea of atmosphere as much in the English speaking world, it’s only in schools that actually have a lovely atmosphere that you’ll find truly (sustainable) outstanding practice.
It’s also what OFSTED will be looking for when they come into your school, because they are interested in ‘reading the air’ these days. Which is good. Makes a nice change.
If it feels chaotic, well, it won’t be as good… and then they’ll start looking for why it isn’t.
How to get it.
There are lots of ways that you can make sure that you have a lovely atmosphere…
This should be a goal, for quite a few reasons, which I’ll elaborate on. Remember, you don’t need to know how you’re going to achieve your goal at the outset, you just need to have enough ‘why’s’ and be clear enough about what it’s going to look like.
Because of what’s necessary for calm busyness to be possible, achieving it will necessarily tick a ton of other boxes. Visualizing a goal, builds understanding; as Napolean Hill said, what you can imagine, you can achieve. You wouldn’t necessarily understand what you’d need to do as you set out anymore than you’d understand how to have a successful marriage before you’ve committed.
When you focus on the parts without having an overall goal that you can see in your imagination, you run the risk of becoming myopic or hyper-focusing on one aspect to the exclusion of others, which won’t necessarily lead to an outstanding result.
It’s a bit of a hierarchical dependency structure like Bloom’s taxonomy. Higher order thinking necessitates lower order thinking in an emergent fashion. Knowledge, understanding and application enable evaluating, synthesising and creating.
Imagine what your school would look like (or your office) if ‘calm busyness’ were the norm.
Really see the building, the rooms, the staff and students.
Who is there?
What are they doing, how are they interacting, what kinds of things are they saying?
What’s the tone in their voices?
If you can get even more detailed, what do you hear?
How do you feel?
What do you smell? That’s a good one. If you can smell what things are like, you’re getting properly immersed.
When you know all of that, can imagine it fully and put the work into actually doing the visualisation and revisiting that visualisation on a regular basis, your understanding of what needs to be done will become more and more accurate. You’ll be able to effectively apply your staff time and expertise to the things that will create your imagined outcome.
But don’t just do the visualisation yourself. Write it out. Share it. Invite your staff and governors to participate in that vision. When everyone understands the vision, everyone will pull in the same direction.
It won’t happen overnight, but persistence is the key, as always.
It WILL happen if you keep going, keep revisiting the goal and asking what’s the next step.
What do you think is necessary to have a ‘lovely school’?