By. Andrew Ellsworth, Vice President of Health & Learning, Green Building Alliance
Do you know anyone who has taken a class in empathy? Followed a course in compassion, taken a test in curiosity? These qualities are the foundation for how we interact with others and the world around us, yet most of us developed them without specifically studying them in school.
We live in a fast-changing world, where the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace may not even exist yet. This uncertainty has driven an exceedingly weighty emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math, with success tied to career-readiness and college preparation. But what is easily overlooked are the competencies that allow students to become citizens; citizens who can work toward a greater good, who can serve and care for those who are less fortunate, and who have the constitution to treat others with respect, dignity, and love.
Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten articulates this more bluntly. “Share everything; play fair; don’t hit people…clean up your own mess…say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody… [and] when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together,” he writes. “Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.” Schools are instrumental in shaping this type of social character, but lacking both prescriptive standards and curricular lessons, this pursuance can seem vague at best. How then can we cultivate what is not directly taught?
It turns out that children’s emotional disposition is greatly modeled after the behavior, values, and norms that surround them. Put another way, children pattern their interactions from the dominant cultures they experience, school culture being an important one. To better explore the impact of these values, we recently connected with the Pittsburgh Urban Christian School (PUCS), an independent K-8 school located in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania just outside Pittsburgh. Started in 1981, PUCS is rooted in a Christian tradition that connects faith to all aspects of life, and welcomes 130 students from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
When I first set foot in PUCS, I was taken aback by the welcoming and kind nature of the middle-schoolers I encountered. They made eye contact, smiled, and warmly greeted me – highly unusual behavior for the average teenager. From that moment, I knew that something amazing was happening there.
The PUCS culture has been very carefully and intentionally built on a foundation of honesty, humility, and self-awareness. What makes these values come to life is the way in which the administration and teachers practice them. For example, when students ask a question that is beyond their teacher’s understanding, the teacher can honestly say “I don’t know,” and then they can authentically look for answers together. “What we desperately don’t want to do is trample on kids’ curiosity and desire to care, because we think it’s already there,” says Dave Moore, PUCS’ Executive Director. “Telling kids there are things they aren’t allowed to question is a fantastic way of ruining their curiosity. We set out to raise adults who are self-aware, curious, caring, and have virtue to not just speak, but speak civilly.”
PUCS works from the curriculum of “integral education,” which is different from “integrated education.” Whereas integrated education elucidates the connections between different subjects, integral education posits that all subjects are intertwined and there is something that undergirds and binds them all together. Students are presented the world as being integral, and them being integral to it. Like a mobile – delicate and reliant on the whole to maintain balance – a PUCS student learns that his community, family, environment, and world are integral to who he is, as much as he is integral to them. “The education we provide is all for a larger purpose, it’s not an end unto itself,” says Mr. Moore. “Our biggest failure would be if our children left here thinking that the world was designed to give them what they want. We are raising a different type of person here: a person who thinks generously from the time she is in kindergarten. We find that by focusing on service as being the endpoint, the academic results come.” Students understand that they have a responsibility for even the very small things, and that they are stewards of everything they touch.
What has all this yielded? “We can see that our students already have heart and show concern for other people,” says Bea Thomas, PUCS’ Director of Development. “Our kids are thinking about others, and are already becoming aware of social justice issues. Being grounded in faith, we teach students that they have the responsibility and ability to impact people in the world around them.” Even as the students move on to high school and college, many students and families still participate in the PUCS community. Some volunteer their time to tutor or mentor current students, some sponsor and assist students in attending PUCS. These actions are not born from feelings of guilt or obligation, but rather from a deep sense of gratitude. “It’s the culture of generosity that we’ve created here that keeps our families coming back,” says Ms. Thomas. “We don’t expect to necessarily be the recipient of that generosity, but we are honored when it is bestowed upon us.”
Culture is a powerful force that deeply affects how we treat one another, and school culture is no exception. Though changes in school culture cannot be mandated through policy, culture is indeed fluid, and we have the power to shift culture by reaffirming and elevating shared beliefs and values. Nonetheless, most change in schools tends to focus on more tactical elements: textbooks, light bulbs, nutrition standards, or the newest technology. These types of changes are visible, can happen quickly, and are often more easily funded. But real, meaningful change rarely happens through tangible improvements. True culture change requires deep, systems-level exploration to fundamentally alter the way people think, do, and perceive their role in the larger system. It is time-consuming, non-linear, and often very uncomfortable and emotional for those involved.
In recognition of the depth needed, the Green & Healthy Schools Academy launched the School Sustainability Culture Program, designed to foster will and commitment among K-12 educators to aspire to a culture of sustainability. For the last five years, the Culture Program has brought together a community of educators to wrestle with big and complicated concepts like equity, well-being, beauty, and belonging. This cohort experience has given them the space to explore not just how these values materialize in their schools, but also the possibilities of dreaming bigger. During this process, schools recognize the importance of fostering strong relational qualities like empathy, love, and compassion as key motivators of sustainable mindsets, and foundational to encouraging behaviors like energy saving and recycling.
Through the Culture Program, we have learned that intentionally changing culture in schools is indeed possible, but the means by which this change happens can be different for each school. Having clarity of purpose is crucial: what types of citizens do we want to foster? What does success look like? How can we be intentional with our day-to-day activities so that they lead us toward our aspirational vision? There are no quick fixes or checklists to changing culture, because it is a journey, not a destination. But it is well worth the effort when you can cultivate an environment that truly reflects what your school and community value most, and the qualities your students will carry forth.
To learn more about our work, visit the Green & Healthy Schools Academy at www.greenandhealthyschoolsacademy.org, or read a previous GreenNotes article about the School Sustainability Culture Program. You can read more about Pittsburgh Urban Christian School at www.pucs.org.
About the Author
Andrew Ellsworth is Vice President of Health and Learning at the Green Building Alliance (GBA), based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Andrew directs GBA’s health and learning efforts through the Green & Healthy Schools Academy and GBA-delivered education programming. He promotes pertinent issues and safer school environments for children and adults. Through coordination of resources and education programs for schools and school districts, Andrew helps them and their regional stakeholders understand and implement policies and practices designed to improve environmental health. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Carnegie Mellon University, with a minor in Business Administration.