Schools That Change Lives

Steven LevyThe Teachers' Lounge1 Comment

What does this diagram represent?

Fig. 1 (answer below)


What about this one?

Fig. 2 (answer below)

If you got the first one, you probably got the second one.

I’m not sure where I first saw these diagrams, but they come to mind when I think about the power a school has to affect students’ lives. I have had the privilege over many years in education to visit hundreds of schools based on many different educational visions. Regardless of the philosophy they espouse, some have powerful and others minimal effect on student lives. It’s not the school’s philosophy that gives it power to shape lives, it’s how aligned everyone is in the school community with that philosophy. I’m not saying that the philosophy or theology of a school doesn’t matter. It is the ultimate matter. But in terms of the effect it has to actually shape the desires and growth of community members, what matters most is the degree to which teachers especially, but also students and families, are all on the same page.

So the question becomes, how do we get on the same page? And what is a page, anyway? To the first question, most leaders recognize this as an essential foundation of the success in any organization. The mission statement describes the foundation, but usually in broad, vague terms that leaves lots of room for interpretation. When it gets down to actually implementing it, some proclaim it from the top, “This is the way we are going to do things here.” How has that worked out for you? Top down edicts tend to create cultures of compliance. Teachers do what is asked of them (or behind closed doors, not). As I’ve heard a thousand times, “Because that’s what the principal says we have to do.” Even if it’s a good practice, doing it because the principal says, does not create powerful magnetic alignment, but at best a weak force, easily disrupted, held together loosely by promise of rewards or threats of consequences (teacher evaluations) rather than true devotion.

How about from the bottom up? I have rarely seen a strong whole school culture grow from the teachers themselves, without the support of the school leader. I’ve seen micro-cultures within a school, where groups of teachers with a common vision collaborate and have significant impact on student lives. And certainly, there are many individual teachers who have had profound influence on their students. We can all name those teachers in our own development. But to create a coherent, powerful whole school culture that impacts everyone in the building takes more than individual teachers or small groups doing great things. In fact, you could have many great teachers in your building and still look like the first diagram (Fig. 1). Independent teachers like to do it “their own way,” (I, chief among them!) They have been successful at it. They have developed curriculum and methods that have worked for them over the years. One can’t argue with their individual results. But I wonder, would it help students more if every teacher they had used the same language to define what it meant to be a good reader? A good writer? A good mathematician? A follower of Christ? There would still be plenty of room for teacher creativity and independence, but within a common framework. In my experience, schools that have developed common language, common practices, common expectations have had more success with all kinds of students than in schools where everyone does it their own way, even if each of their own ways is good.

But collective agreement of these practices can’t be mandated from above! In a way, the power of the community is built on the willing sacrifice of individuals who agree to give up their own way because they see the benefit for students when we create a common way together. (See the section “Tuck in your shirts” in my previous blog, “Do Sweat the Small Stuff” for a simple, but dramatic example of the power of faculty being on the same page).

So what is the “page” we want to be on together?

Of course, the one that points to Jesus. But Jesus is just too big! We have to name the qualities of Jesus that we strive to become like. What characteristics can we all agree on that can be practiced together from kindergarten through 12th grade? That are specific, have clear expectations connected to observable behaviors, and yes, measurable outcomes. The most effective “page” to unite the community is the one where we develop, practice and celebrate what schools have called Guiding Principles, Character Code, Habits of Learning, or simply, like a school I am working with now, Mt. Zion Christian School in Manchester, NH, “The MZ Ways.”

New Covenant School in Arlington, MA calls them the Six Words of Servanthood

These character qualities are evident in every aspect of school life: in chapel, classrooms, the playground, even in the bathroom! Faculty meetings begin with reflection on how teachers are living the words. The School Board reviews them in their meetings and discusses what they would look like in their work together.

The Niagara Association for Christian Education (NACE) named their Community Character Traits:

After the faculty created the character traits they asked the students for feedback. In particular, they asked who are the kind of adults you want to be around? What qualities do they have that you want to be like? The students said we like to be with adults who like to have fun, who love what they are doing. So they added the word JOY to their traits:

Joy – God created me and the world for delight. I can find delight in my work and in Him!

The process of naming these qualities is valuable in itself for community alignment, but getting them from the charts on the walls into the hearts and behaviors of the students is the ongoing challenge. I’ll share some of the ways schools have done that in my next blog.


Fig. 1: This diagram represents a bar of iron. In unmagnetized materials, the atoms are randomly oriented and neutralize each other or cancel each other out.

Fig. 2: In a magnet the atoms become aligned and their forces are added to each other and lined up with the applied field.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy ( is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

One Comment on “Schools That Change Lives”

  1. Thanks again Stephen – the diagram actually reminded me of a rubics cube – it looks disorganized and random until all the same colors are on the same side.
    Looking forward to your next blog!

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