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Why are standard operating procedures a necessary foundation for positive school culture?

August 31, 2017

By: Laura Hilger

Have you ever watched the scene in The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon uses a flow chart for how to make a new friend using a friendship algorithm?  With the added bonus of humor, it provides three foundational structures that highly compare to what we need in our schools for nourishing a positive culture and building student agency:

  • Student Driven
  • Independence
  • Peer Supports

Student agency is about getting out of the student’s way; it’s about how to answer the question, “what am I supposed to do now?” Even when we create a solution-oriented process for or with students to use at the beginning of the year, many times, we end up promoting a dependent culture because instead of expecting them to use the process or procedure, we jump to giving them the solution. Sometimes, we might take it away too soon because we assume it isn’t going to work.

We want to help, but in the long run, we aren’t. A positive school culture is one that is alive with student-driven actions that range from how they go get a drink of water to how they are going to get through their rigorous learning for the day. Positive school culture doesn’t happen overnight; how we use student voice to set up procedures and processes in combination with consistency and modeling are essential for succeeding in building the positive culture that we need. These standard operating procedures (SOP) must not only exist at the classroom level, but it is also vital to have systemic building level procedures as well.

When I was an administrator at Highland Academy in Anchorage, Alaska, one of the first lighthouse secondary competency-based schools in our country, we had a building level problem with the boy’s bathroom. The whole school knew about it. Although we had a SOP for when to use the bathroom, students weren’t following our code of cooperation. They were littering and trashing the bathroom. On the one hand, students were following the procedure correctly, but on the other hand, did they deserve to have a SOP that gave them a lot of freedom if they were no longer able to live up to the expectations of our code of cooperation? Was the answer to take the procedure away because students were abusing the school environment? Of course, the abuse was only coming from a small group of students, but there was also the issue of the spectators involved and the bathroom was part of our school. The typical response would be to find those responsible, and provide a consequence such as removing their access to the procedure.

But what if you couldn’t determine who was responsible? What if your culture was still working on owning behavior and mistakes? Rather than ignore it because those responsible couldn’t be determined, our answer was to close the bathroom during class time. While this was a legal move because the boys could still go to the bathroom during passing times while a chaperone stood watch near it, the mood of the building imploded with emotions. Even the girls were upset because our culture had been shamed. Because of a few boys, the hallways were now full of hard feelings.

You can imagine how upset the boys were about us essentially taking the bathroom procedure away from everyone. However, our message to them was that this is our school and it’s our responsibility to come to a solution together. According to the data at hand, the boys were clearly demonstrating that they weren’t ready for a bathroom procedure that allowed so much freedom. One student came to me upset saying, “Ms. Hilger, it’s not fair. Most of the boys are using the procedure correctly and following our code.” I replied, “You are correct. What are we going to do?” As an administrator, questions about how to deal with these cultural challenges arise throughout the year. What is important is how we use our agreed upon processes and collegial norms to work with the students to come to a solution. Culture isn’t based on the actions of one person; it’s based on the collective whole that harmonizes around its vision each and every day. It also takes time to build culture and if we don’t take advantage of those learning opportunities, we end up doing what we’ve always done, and that is having the adults as the directors and the students as the followers.

Answering the call, students tried several methods to solve the problem, ultimately leading to a student summit that consisted of the advisory representatives, both boys and girls, all while the bathroom remained closed. They had to go through several ideas before coming to a solution that made sense to them. This involved them holding boy only assemblies, rewriting the bathroom SOP and holding discussions with upper level students. Although it took a while to come to a solution, the bathroom was never messed up again.

Some may argue that spending that amount of time on solving that problem took away from instructional time. Is the bathroom SOP really that important in comparison? In my experience, in the end, the student body was stronger, and therefore, it was very worth it. Would we have preferred for the students who made the mistakes to come forward and own it themselves? Of course, but at the time, they weren’t ready to do that.

At a systems level, that is what we mean by the importance of having SOPs that build a positive school culture. It isn’t just about having a poster on the wall; it’s about putting the students at the center to practice independence and peer supports so that eventually they become stronger agents for themselves and their learning community.

At the classroom level, it is exactly the same. If a SOP is in place, in those moments when a student comes to you with a question that they can answer themselves by using that SOP, try remaining silent and point to the SOP. Or try asking a question that gets the student to the SOP instead of giving them the answer.

If a SOP doesn’t exist and students are forced to come to you instead of figuring it out on their own, that’s a sign that one is needed. When adults are constantly at the center, quite frankly, we are missing the point. Rather than build equitable leadership across the student body that becomes the positive school culture, we live with our pockets of success.


Laura Hilger
Senior Director of Teaching and Learning

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