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  • Writer's pictureEducating Gender

The Culture of Schools is the Culture of Teachers

Edward T. Hall in his work, Beyond Culture, gives the reader an apt metaphor for describing what we see when we examine the culture of an institution: The iceberg.

The cliche, “the tip of the iceberg” is often not meant to depict what people think of as the whole but of a small part.  We often consider the iceberg as this mammoth mountain of ice and snow and, well, the tip is what sits on top, a small portion of something much larger. The truth of the expression, I believe, is what Hall alludes to -- that the tip of the iceberg is this very small portion of what we see on the surface of the water, barely noticeable or worthy of mention, and if we were to look below the surface, we would see this massive structure undetectable to the human eye. And, if we are honest, we spend a good deal of our time avoiding what lies beneath the surface. Out of sight and out of mind. 

Schools are notorious icebergs. And, because we are not in the business of building toys or airplanes or producing fast food, but in the development of human beings, school cultures are often found within the assumptions, the explicit and implicit thinking and perceptions of the people who work and run them. As much as the culture of an institution sits below the surface, schools largely are a byproduct of what sits below the psychologically accepted norms of the people who work in them. The school iceberg is often merely a reflection of teachers, educators, and school leaders.

...we spend a good deal of our time avoiding what lies beneath the surface. Out of sight and out of mind. 

And, there is often no better place to see the larger cultural natures of our schools than in the most notorious space of a school -- the faculty lounge.


To say that this is a place where teachers unwind or let it all hang out would be a radical understatement. I am sure other private and public institutions have spaces like this, but just mention the faculty lounge to a school person and you will see much eye rolling and shaking of heads.

Teachers spend most of their day trying to stay as composed as possible. It does not always work, but for the most part, teachers do take seriously the idea that they are supposed to model and mirror adult, dignified behavior. By the time they are on break, sequestered amongst their colleagues, it can feel like a dam breaking.

In faculty rooms, there is lots of the personal sharing you hear in any workplace, but there is also an extended narrative around other teachers, the school administration (i.e. “the school needs to…”, or “the school is run like…”) and, of course the students.

Sometimes, discussions regarding students are important ones, where faculty share their extended learning/educational experiences regarding a child, and the conversation supports the educators’ abilities to tackle issues or concerns. Or, the conversations can be super inappropriate, ranging from complaining, idle gossip or the more damaging characterizations that stigmatize and give students reputations that they may carry with them from class to class or year to year. Instead of students being seen as constantly growing and changing and evolving, they become typeset and categorized early on. 

Teachers spend most of their day trying to stay as composed as possible...By the time they are on break, sequestered amongst their colleagues, it can feel like a dam breaking.

These conversations also reveal the nature of the iceberg, the part “under the water”, for schools. Much of the conversation can be a self-validating process: A way for teachers to assert feelings or sentiments about what should be considered normative. Gender is always a big part of that conversation.

I have written previously about language sets which teachers use that, rather than accurately describe student attitudes and behaviors regarding learning, box them into carefully constructed gender expectations. (See: Describing Students as Learners: Saying Too Much or Too Little at the Same Time) This language is also very much the framing of internal conversations that teachers and administrators perpetuate in what appears to be the most innocent of ways.

“He’s so out of control all day. He just can’t stay in his seat and he disrupts class constantly”.

“She‘s just such a good student. I never have any issues with her. She follows directions and is so respectful, never speaks out of turn”.

“I wish the parents would discipline him more. It would help him to learn how to follow rules”.

“She is such a good friend to the other girls in class. Just so sweet”.

It may be just too complicated to figure out WHY teachers want students to fall into these categories, but it certainly has much less to do with the students and much more to do with what makes teachers comfortable, how they feel about the conversations they think they need to have with their colleagues. What is certain is that these conversations are not just idle or bored talk: They represent the very way we sculpt the institutions in which we work to look a certain way, to feel a certain way. Language penetrates into the desks, the play areas, the very walls of our schools. They become the mountains of ice and mass lying beneath the surface.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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