1) Developing the school as a learning community with a positive school climate
In the enthographical research study entitled Teaching in a Cold and Windy Place, Joanne Tompkins (1998), finds that good leadership can make a difference with respect to decreasing the rates of Inuit dropout. Tompkins (1998) writes from her experiences as a principal in a small school in Anurapaktuq (1987 - 1992). During her time, many positive changes occurred in the school and community, which resulted in higher school attendance and increased school success.
One of the most important roles of a leader in an Inuit school is to create a school environment that fosters learning and support. Both parents and students must enjoy coming to school because for a time "education was not compulsory in the NWT" (Tompkins, 1998, p. 38). Tompkins (1998) goes on to report that "those children attending school are doing so because they want to be there. . . Social convention may mean that students will continue having to get up alone and come to school unfed or poorly fed" (p. 38). If leaders want to increase attendance they have to create an environment where students find school "rewarding, exciting and challenging enough to gladly attend" (Tompkins, 1998, p. 38). Also parents must view the school as a positive place, one to which they will want to send their children.
The term school culture has been written about extensively over the past few years to refer to this environmental influence. The concept of school culture can be quite vague and confusing for those who interpret the meaning differently. Deal & Peterson (1998) define school culture as being:
. . .everything that goes on in schools: how staff dress, what they talk about, their willingness to change, the practice of instruction and the emphasis given student and faculty learning. . . Culture is the underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges (p.28).
This definition is comprehensive because it takes into account the physical atmosphere of the school as well as the internal mental attitudes of those inside; it also pinpoints various elements within the school that contributes to its culture.
In many research papers, negative school culture has been cited as contributing to the dropout factor of students. Identifying the weaker areas of the school cultural patterns can help to decrease the number of Inuit students who leave school due to negative feelings about the school environment. Schools also deal with issues raised about staff and student morale. For Deal & Peterson (1998) a toxic culture ruins any chance of positive learning experiences for both teacher and student through negativity. Deal & Peterson (1998) believe that it is the role of the school leader to create a "web of influence (that) binds the school together and makes it special" (p.28). Without this supportive web, staff morale will decrease, reforms will fail and students' achievement will lower (Deal & Peterson, 1998).
Tompkins (1998) writes about the misconceptions between the southern (Qallunaaq) teachers and the Inuit community and how this filters down into the attitudes towards the school. High rates of teacher turnover (teachers leaving the community after two or three years) appears to impact greatly on the image of the school:
As the school grew larger and staff turnover increased . . . the community began to believe that Qallunaaq staff did not like the community or the children because they left the community after one or two years. Community members became less comfortable being in the school environment. The new Qallunaaq teachers who arrived in the community sensed the communitys standoffishness and interpreted it to mean that the community did not care about the education of the children. At this point there were few if any Inuit educators in the school to help Qallunaaq teachers with their perceptions of the community. Consequently, these teachers became frustrated with what they perceived to be the lack of community support and did not stay long. In a sense, both the Qallunaaq teachers and the communitys perceptions were true, and a vicious cycle began (Tompkins, 1998, 23).
In this case, it may be the job of administration to create programs where new teachers can be oriented in the community and these misconceptions can be dealt with.
Deal & Peterson (1998) recognize that school leaders can come from all levels: principals, teachers, parents and students. This is important because it takes many people to raise the culture of the school to productive from what Deal & Peterson (1998) term as toxic; each person involved has essential skills in expert areas, which can be used advantageously. Schools that have positive cultures are those that
1) have a shared sense of purpose or vision amongst staff members,
2) have underlying norms of hard work, improvement and collegiality,
3) celebrate student achievement, teacher creativity, and parental commitment, and
4) have a social web of information, support and history created by a network of storytellers and local heroes from the community (Deal & Peterson, 1998).
School leaders have to pay attention to the symbolic side of the school, the vision and dreams, the rituals and celebrations (Deal & Peterson, 1998). Deal & Peterson (1998) cite one school that values the rituals and history of its Navajo students by building the school based on the four directions of Navajo beliefs and decorating the walls with Navajo weavings. Like many Inuit communities, Taloyoak has promoted Inuit culture in the school by donating artifacts and tools to the school museum; the walls are filled with Inuit pictures and Inuktitut language despite there being a high number of non-Native teachers on staff. Valuing the symbolic side of the school works to heighten the positive culture for the students.
Deal & Peterson (1998) discuss three important things that school leaders do when shaping culture. School leaders must "read the culture" (p. 30) by taking in the history and present situation. Leaders "uncover and articulate core values" (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 30) by identifying aspects of the culture that support student-centred learning. Leaders "fashion a positive context" (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 30) by strengthening positive elements and changing negative ones. School leaders do these things by communicating core values, honouring and recognizing those who serve, observing rituals and traditions, recognizing heroes, speaking of the deeper mission, celebrating achievements and preserving the focus on students (Deal & Peterson, 1998).
One way that school leaders can communicate school culture is through an extension of the peer-coaching model designed by Costa (1992). Costa (1992) promotes collegiality by creating a learning community where teachers meet regularly, visit each others classroom and frequently give feedback about the relationship between their instructional decisions and student behaviours. This model could be extended to deal with school-community relationships and differences in cultural backgrounds as well as best practices in teaching Native students. Once leaders promote this type of communication, misconceptions as described by Tompkins (1998) can be eliminated thus allowing teachers to energize their relationships with students and parents. This is especially important in the unique schools of the North where the idea of formal education is viewed as a somewhat questionable force from the outside world.
Sergiovanni (1992, 1994) writes extensively about the metaphor of school as community versus school as organization. Traditionally, Inuit education took place in the community and family circle. Children observed elders and followed by example the unwritten rules of their culture. Gradually children began to take on more responsibilities until they graduated to form their own family group. The teachers were the parents and elders in the society. Ability to survive and to provide for family determined success. One of the biggest changes to happen in Inuit communities was the transfer of education from the home to federal and later territorial schools (Condon, 1988).
When formalized education came to the North, it was regarded very much like an organization. "Organization is an idea that is imposed from without. . . Organizations use rules and regulations, monitoring and supervising and evaluation system" (Sergiovanni, 1992, p. 41). Unlike the community learning environment of the past where the Inuit teachers (elders and parents) were motivated to teach for group survival, teachers in the formalized school system work under a hierarchy. This organizational structure separates teachers from student success. In most cases, today, teachers are not deeply affected by whether or not their students pass or fail; they still have a job irrelevant to the number of students who succeed. In the Inuit world, the whole family clan would perish if the youth did not learn the skills needed for survival. Thus elders and parents were the driving force behind educating the youth and the need for education came from within the family rather than being forced on from above.
According to Sergiovanni (1992) the current attitude towards hierarchical power structure would all change if the community became the metaphor for schools:
Communities are defined by their centres. Centres are repositories of values sentiments, and beliefs that provide the needed cement for uniting people in a common cause. Centres govern the school values and provide norms that guide behaviour and give meaning to school community life (p. 41).
To create such a community, leadership must come from within through teachers who are committed, self-managing and working towards common goals through true collegiality and intrinsic motivation (Sergiovanni, 1992). Like traditional Inuit teaching methods, the whole community of educators must believe in and care about the vision of student success. Teachers who begin to work better together reap the benefits of increased student learning.
Educational administration must begin to understand school as community. It needs to consider how to foster a professional community where everyone cares and helps each other to learn and to lead (Sergiovanni, 1994). Sergiovanni (1994) states that the implication of this metaphor of school as community is not limited to issues of authority and leadership. With community as the theory, "we would have to restructure in such a way that the school itself is not defined by brick and mortar but by ideas and relationships" (Sergiovanni, 1994, p. 223). Creating communities by kinship and communities of place imply that a number of our current organizational structures must change also. Practices such as grade grouping, fragmented learning periods, extrinsic rewards systems and other notions must be abandoned because they longer make sense when the metaphor is changed to "community" (Sergiovanni, 1994, pp.223-224).
Tompkins (1998) confirms the need to change grade groupings to family groupings because "in a real family, children are of varying ages, yet they all learn from one another as well as from their parents. So in family-grouped classrooms, students are expected to learn from those older and younger than themselves" (pp. 68 - 69). The value of creating a caring community within the walls of the school is emphasised by Tompkins (1998):
Family groupings also helped reinforce the notion that school is more than just a place to learn. It is also a place to have fun with your friends and look after them. Caring became an important ingredient in these classes; students learned that relationship - how people treat each other - are just as important as scoring 100 on your math test. In a community struck tragically by eight suicides in eight years (1983 - 91) the value of taking care of others cannot be overestimated. (p.70)
Students need to care for one other and building a sense of community in a school is a good way to role model caring while learning. Teachers must learn that to succeed they must work smarter together in a community that role models learning. When schools become communities of caring learners, Inuit students will feel comfortable coming to school to learn the skills that will help them succeed in the modern challenges that lie before them.
The article, "Restructuring for Learning" (Harris, 1992), also clarifies this need for change. The opening analogy describes schools in the past as a family farm model changing to a factory system. In comparison, traditionally the Inuit taught their children much like the family farm model of learning where Inuit children were taught by observation and hand-on activities. How shocking it must have been for children to be removed from such a family atmosphere into the factory model of neatly compartmentalised learning without even experiencing the industrial era of the western world. Now the Inuit are faced with the postindustrial era of information, all which has happened over the last fifty years. It becomes obvious that we must not only restructure but also reconceptualise education because the aspect of work is being reconceived and not simply modernised (Harris, 1992).
The relationship between student and teacher explores the changing roles of school, curriculum, student and teacher. Harris (1992) states: "[Teachers] must develop a new understanding of what it means to say all children can learn " (p.8). We must examine what messages we send to students and beware of labeling and grouping students into those that can and those that cannot. A conscious effort is required when teachers are under the stress of accountability through departmental examinations. Teachers must remember that students are valuable human resources (Harris, 1992). Too easily can our resources turn into a liability when students drop out because of failure. This is all too true with the arrival of Nunavut; each young Inuit person has an important role to play in order to make this new territory work.
Harris (1992) looks at the role of schools as primary care givers. In many northern schools, teachers are: providers of breakfast and lunch, suicide prevention counsellors, prenatal educators, recreation leaders, health instructors, drug and alcohol workers, career counsellors and more. Teachers wear many other hats inside and outside of the classroom. As Harris (1992) suggests, some northern schools have changed their school year to match hunting season in June and July. There are mixed feelings about our various roles and one wonders if the education system has taken too many of the duties that once belonged to the family. It is understandable that childrens needs must be met in order for them to succeed at school but it is regrettable that it seems to always be put upon the school to fulfill these needs.
Summary: link to Factors Leading to Dropout for Inuit Students
School climate and culture includes everything that is done within the school. School leaders have a diverse role in the creation of positive school culture. Students need a place were they can feel safe and cared about; their basic needs must be met in order to think and learn. A positive school climate can combat feelings of alienation, prejudice and insensitivity, which are factors leading to Inuit dropout. Students must feel they are valued and involved in their learning. Students who find success in school are more likely to stay in school. School leaders need to increase the profile of the Inuit culture so that students feel at home in their school and that their culture is worthy and valuable. Considerations must be made to making the school schedule match the needs of the community and be flexible enough to allow cultural activities to take place without condemnation. The Inuktitut language should be a priority and nonnative teachers must have the support by others to learn phrases to welcome students into the school. All of these efforts and more will work to improve the school climate. A positive school culture and climate is important in the fight to reduce Inuit dropout.
Article Review: Costa, A.L. (1992). The learning community.
Article Review: Harris, Phillip. (1992). Restructuring for learning.