Culture and the Learning Resource Center as a New Principal

Years ago, as a new elementary school principal, one of the most intriguing opportunities I faced was addressing school culture. I was appointed to my position as the third principal of the campus. As the newcomer, I studied the existing culture and asked many questions. I needed to understand the rituals that existed, and wanted to start a few of my own. What would we keep? What was really valued? What was expected?

What I needed to ascertain were the elements of culture that would help us grow as a team and make necessary improvements. Conversely, I was ready to dismantle those that were going to work against us. I spent time with “the originals,” who were the employees that helped open the building. They were the chosen few, hired by the first principal, who was exceptional. I knew they understood the intended culture and could help me gain appreciation for current practices. Through their storytelling, they revealed much about the belief systems, and shared their concerns as well as the events that I was able to deem signature to the campus.

The importance of understanding culture is paramount for leadership, as I recognize education as a social science. Behaviors and communication preferences define culture. My experiences continued to fuel my desire to learn more as I witnessed various examples throughout my educational career, serving later as an associate superintendent responsible for curriculum and instruction, as well as campus leadership and performance. What I learned is that there are so many attributes that can influence how a campus behaves, one of those being architecture.

The learning resource center I inherited was designed at the center of the school. It was beautiful, oversized, and round. It was surrounded by glass so that everyone entering the school, or walking by, could experience the library. It had a sunken kiva that was observable from the front door, but was “off limits” unless it was a special occasion. It also had beautiful tall ceilings, as the volume was two-stories, like the campus. The glass elevator allowed those riding to see into the library. I assumed that this extraordinary space was the heart, and focus, of the school. I was wrong. The existing culture did not embrace the elegant openness of the learning resource center. Although two sets of glass doors invited students and teachers inside, only one set was to be used. I learned this by entering the wrong set the first time I met the librarian. I should have anticipated this after having to use my master key to enter.

I knew immediately that I wanted to embrace the architectural gift of the learning resource center, but this would require extensive work on the existing culture. I set out to build appreciation for the lovely museum of books that students could visit when they were scheduled to be there...if they left all of their belongings outside, were silent, and entered only one set of doors.

Diligent, deliberate communication, and education about what could be became my mantra for student and teacher experiences in the library. Embracing the large ceiling and installing a tall inspirational reading loft got the students’ attention one Monday morning. Receiving a grant and incorporating theatrical tools transformed the sunken kiva into a stage for the natural performer, and stretched the oratorical skills of those who needed them. Building a sandbox allowed young learners to discover “fossils” while integrated science instruction improved. Creating a dedicated area for evolving technology allowed students to interact with peers in another country.

Expectations for the use of the library evolved. Students started entering the space from the doors that were most convenient for them. Students were expected to discuss their plan for their play, or use puppets to tell their story in the kiva. Students were allowed to climb with their reading materials into the loft, and use the pillows as needed. Discoveries were made daily by future anthropologists during a dig. The culture of the learning resource center changed drastically with the integration of existing architectural support, as well as new features to inspire students and teachers.

Architecture can influence a positive culture. It can assist with foci that draw learners, staff, and community to a place of importance. It can help signify a strong belief system, and it can serve as an inspirational place for learning. I’m thankful for my experiences that allow me to tie purposeful design to teaching and learning— the heart of school culture.