What Great Schools Look Like

It’s funny, this week I have had three separate conversations with administrators all revolving around the same topic: what does a great school look like?

It’s a good question, especially when you consider that there are many types of schools, existing in various socioeconomic regions, inhabited by students of every background, ability, and age.

Then you take into account state mandates, funding, politics, and any number of other variables that differentiate schools from state to state, city to city, and even one side of the tracks to the other.  So how can you possibly define what a great school looks like?

Having had the opportunity to visit many types of schools now across the country, and meeting thousands of educators along the way, I’ve developed my own criteria for how I define a great school.  First, I want to make clear that a great school does not have to have a certain socioeconomic class, the newest technology, or even the highest test scores in the district.  It all boils down to the adults who make up the school.  The individuals who are with the children each and every day.

So, with that being said, I have concluded that great schools demonstrate three basic practices: collaboration, consistency, and celebration.

Some explanation of each for what this looks like:

Collaboration: Teachers work together on planning, brainstorming, and implementing lessons.  Opportunities are given by administrators to observe each other and have meaningful conversations.  Teachers are excited to share lesson ideas and materials, and use each other to make them better.  Staff trusts each other, and students are seen as “ours,” not “mine.”

Consistency: There is a common language (“edu-speak”) and practices within the school that teachers, staff, and students understand.  There are expectations that are known and maintained by all staff.  When administrators walk into classrooms, there are certain visible practices that are clear across all classrooms (eg. respectful interactions, manners).

Celebration: Students, staff, and stakeholders are frequently recognized and celebrated by the school community.  Both small scale (round of applause, words of recognition, chant/cheer) and large scale (gatherings, banquets, tangible rewards) are commonplace.  Students realize that though it may not be their turn to be recognized, they are just as excited for their classmates to be honored. 

It is hard to demonstrate all three of these identifiers on a consistent basis.  It involves having the right people in charge, and the right people supporting the efforts.  Parents, community members, and school partners need to also believe in these criteria because they are just as much of the equation as the students and staff.

Sometimes the term “great school” is generously thrown out because of test scores, the neighborhood the school sits in, or a positive single-story that is told.  I encourage stakeholders to dig deeper; look into the true makeup of a school and then decide if it can call itself a great school.

And finally, if you’d like to read some more about great schools, my book, Inside the Trenches, highlights many great schools and educators from around the country.  Click here to check it out. 

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