Creating a School Culture of Success: A Little History

What does a school culture of success look like? How is it defined?  How do we measure it?  What role do tests play and can we have a culture of success with mandated standards and an externally driven curriculum?  Can the conditions for student success exist absent a highly regulated school environment? These questions, as well as so many others, are being debated throughout society with the goal of creating a successful teaching and learning environment for all students. Government at all levels with the support and involvement of educational institutions and foundations are developing various policies to close the achievement gap in our schools and reduce student dropouts.  While most of these efforts are based on good intentions, they tend to be grounded in deficits.  In other words, the thinking is that we can create success from fixing what’s broken.

The IFT Disagrees

It doesn’t make much sense to create a school culture of success from a climate of disappointment and intractable problems. The IFT believes school change should focus on what’s working; the great teaching taking place in our classrooms. Further, if we want to know why children are successful, talk to successful students and their parents.  The IFT believes that the best strategy for school improvement is to investigate what’s working, not what’s broken. By focusing on what works in our schools, encouraging teacher independence and increasing capacity, we are more likely to have success.

Through conversations, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and surveys, the IFT discovered that teachers with the support of school-community stakeholders must be directly involved in the school change process. The IFT has also found that school change is likely to be more successful when: (1) change initiatives are stated in positive terms; (2) change initiatives are driven by internal rules and regulations, and (3) change initiatives are tailored to specific teaching and learning conditions.

Strength-Based Approaches

Through strength-based approaches, teachers and other school-community stakeholders have been found to be more energized and interested in participating in the change process. Strength-based school improvement represents a major shift from traditional school reform approaches where the responsibility for change lies in the hands of a few individuals. Fundamental to the strength-based approach is the assertion that meaningful and sustainable school improvement is more likely when teachers and other school-community stakeholders are excited about the changes they want to make, have a clear plan for action, and the confidence that they can be successful. Strength-based organizational development strategies have been used by many corporations, hospitals, and government agencies to improve performance and to solve intractable problems.

The strength-based design uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to collect data on school, community, and student assets. Through strength-based interviews, affirmative assessments, surveys, audits, and focus groups, school-community stakeholders generate information on structures, procedures, and practices that support student success. What makes this data appropriate and useful for school improvement is that it can be easily tested for social validity and reliability.

This conclusion is based on data the IFT obtained from students and their parents. By conducting strength-based interviews, the IFT has heard wonderful stories from successful students and their parents. It is important to note that participating students and their parents did not have any more special resources and advantages than other students who were having less success in school. In other words, the IFT investigated why certain students were successful (without any special privileges) while other students with the same opportunities were not as successful in school.

From our initial interviews and numerous follow-up meetings, discussions, and focus groups, the IFT identified seven factors that encourage a culture of school success.  These factors include:

  • Future Oriented – Students have a dramatic, positive image of the future.
  • Results Oriented – Students understand strength-based thinking increases capacity and resilience to achieve goals.
  • School Family Relations – Parents as strong partners in the teaching and learning process are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education.
  • School-Wide Relations – All school stakeholders are responsible for the education of each student.
  • Student-Centered – Emphasis is placed on learning over teaching.
  • Student Relations – Students view other students as supportive and interested in their well-being.
  • Work-Oriented – Work is valued, purposeful, and relevant to students.

Next Steps

The CTA IFT supports the view that student assets–not problems–should drive the teaching and learning process and that the acquisition of knowledge and skills around student strengths forms the basis of a rigorous and relevant curriculum. Through strength-based school improvement models, individuals share stories that reveal their deepest thoughts and insights that support a culture of success. School-community stakeholders, thinking together, describe themes, patterns, relationships, and connections in detail. The result is a comprehensive body of knowledge designed to improve student engagement, achievement, and ultimately success.

The bottom-line for teachers and the public schools is that instead of searching for various programmatic and structural changes to improve our schools, the solution or remedy might lie in our schools and classrooms, unnoticed and unobserved. For over a generation, billions of government and foundation dollars have supported thousands of school reform movements in the curriculum, instruction, professional development, and school organizational structure (i.e. smaller learning communities). Most of these reform efforts have focused on a common problem-solving approach: needs analysis of what is wrong or lacking in schools, followed by research into best practice to address these problems, and then design and implementation of plans to find solutions to problems. This process has achieved moderate or temporary results in some schools, but according to numerous public and private studies and reports, the overall results and improvements in our public schools have been less than dramatic.  The bottom-line is that in spite of these efforts and regardless of how noble their intention results have been less than satisfactory.  By focusing on what works in our schools, encouraging teacher independence and increasing capacity, we are more likely to have success.

The “Strengther” movement is Taking Off

Many of you have not been on the HUB for several days. 

A lot has been happening.  Many great ideas to create successful opportunities for all students. 

We know you have wonderful ideas to share. So, when you have a chance, come back to HUB, share your best thinking, and start collaborating. 

Tell your colleagues and friends about the HUB and expand the Strength-Based Justice Circle.  Connect the HUB to your own social network. 

The “Strengther” movement is taking off. 

Educate – Organize – Mobilize.  Remember, it’s all about relationships.

Strength-Based Justice Summit: Participants Get to Work

“I’ve been to lots of CTA workshops but this is the best ever!” “I never knew CTA was interested in my teaching.” “As a new teacher, I see CTA as the organization that truly cares about my students.”

These and other comments were continually heard during the April 20 -21, 2018, CTA-IFT Strength-Based Justice Summit.  It was clearly, Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change in action.

Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change is both a philosophy and practice.  And if you deconstruct it, you start with teacher strengths, positive experiences, and the wisdom of works best in the “teaching and learning” process.  This strength-based knowledge drives teachers, the teaching profession, and public education.

In other words, our strengths present opportunities to envision new realities for public education and if we educate, organize, and mobilize we can design strategies to make our dreams come true. 

CTA members attending the Moreno Valley Think Tank Strength-Based Justice Summit did just that;  it was truly “Strength-Based Teacher Driven Change.”  Over 50 CTA members focused on “Creating Successful Opportunities for ALL Students.”

The result was the design and development of “Action Planning Strength-Based Stories” to make their dream of a “Culture of Success” for ALL students a reality.  You can see their work on the IFT HUB.

These “Strengthers” are putting their great ideas into action.  They are leading the charge to bring “Strength-Based Justice” to public education.

If you are ready to join and collaborate to create successful opportunities for all students go to the and register and login.  Go to the community link and join the conversation.

College of Strengths

Tompkins Cortland Community College is committed to helping each student at the College explore the unique talents and abilities that make student success possible.

The College uses Gallup’s CliftonStrengths for Students program to help discover their specific strengths, and can also help students learn how to apply those strengths to their academic, social, and professional lives.    

Continue reading.

Youth Court Dispositions – Strength-Based Justice bias #youthcourt

Background – San Bernardino High has implemented a site-based youth court this year, with disappointing application. We have not had very many cases due to poor understanding of the students who will do well in the model, following up on dispositions (what the students must do to clear their injury to the school), and calendaring times to hold youth court at a time accessible to all involved. We have been holding hearings for fights and are expanding to include attendance violations.

Strength-based premise – Students serve as jury members during hearings (and the respondent eventually joins the jury for future hearings). They do a great job of identifying the problem, and where students’ attitudes, choices, and actions should be. But they struggle with assigning dispositions that will assist the responding student in improving over the long term. The targets that we have developed in the IFT SBJ summit at table 6 along with the tools we were introduced to can serve as a guide for the jurors. Respondents with attendance issues are advertising to the school community that they are falling through the cracks. We seek to reconnect them to the campus and persuade them to become positive contributors to the school community.

Specifically, respondents could be recommended to work directly with their counselor (or pathway lead) to the strengths inventory with Thrively. The juror could then recommend that the student develop THEIR OWN 5-10 hour service project that contributes to the school facility, or to human beings at the school, that relies on their strengths. Other dispositions could include working on campus to further the SBJ values found in our Provocative Proposition. Students have 30 school days to complete their disposition. Our proposition states:

Every member of Utopia Unified is committed to preparing students to live self-determined, positive, free lives by empowering them with robust academic skills, impactful experiences, and risk-taking opportunities within a culture of safety, willingness, and positivity.

We value healthy relationships, collaboration, recognition, empathy, choice and adding value to others in our community.

To grow our team, students in the Law and Society pathway, as well as the teachers affiliated with the pathway will be trained (or even develop) on questions asking that elucidates the students’ deficits, reasons for their behavior, as well as strengths that may be used during the disposition. Additionally, we will train two staff-member judges who can be available during the week.

The structure is established for fights, and is in process for ditching. On Monday, and throughout the next month and summer recess, we will develop the full structure and communication strategy for shifting all dispositions to the SBJ approach, in line with our Provocative Proposition.

Intended outcomes are to connect students to the campus and the entirety of the resources offered, and to improve student willingness to take advantage of the services, clubs, sports, etc.

I am in charge and will have it ready to go on the first day back to school in August 2018.

We will network during scheduled professional development time and after school.

Parents are strongly encouraged to attend the youth court hearing with their student. The parents are also asked questions and given opportunities to describe for the jury members their perspective about what happened, and how to best use this opportunity for their student.


Day 2: IFT

I am excited to have returned to the IFT for day 2! We began the day by talking about the seven factors for creating a culture of success which began a conversation about how we can create opportunities for students based on these seven factors.  The conversation ran deep which gave me valuable information on how to improve my own teaching approach.

We developed provocative propositions for the future of education and specifically our classrooms.  These are tailored to students themselves. We conducted a gallery walk in which we read each teams’ provocative statements and reflected upon what the common themes were.  The common themes centered around empathy, inclusion, student- centered learning.


Provocative Propositions

Wow!  How powerful the schools we dream about, and can make a reality today in our own classrooms, schools, and districts.

What is your action plan story?

What is your action plan story?

What is the alternative reality for you as an educator? Is it an adventure, a mystery or a horror story with multiple characters?

Your strength-based action planning narrative is only the preface, as the story will write itself as each day in your career unfolds.

Create your strength-based outline while driving home. Start creating on Monday.

On the strength-based HUB, make your own provocative proposition a reality through intensive action planning. Involve your students! Write a grant! Make sure your day job is not a day job, but your strength-based reality!


Pay It Forward

Pay It Forward

At a traditional staff development, a teacher might attend, learn and take away. At a strength-based summit, teachers discover what is working in education, dream an educational system that is best for children, design innovative approaches and deliver what is best. Professionals who work alongside other strength-based professionals can appreciate where they are from, who they are and what is to come. At a strength-based summit, teachers do not “get” they “give.” Their best and brightest students have shaped them into the professional they are–they impart the knowledge to other teachers. When we approach education with a strength-based framework where everyone’s talents and strengths are first and foremost, we can pay it forward liberally and land in great places.