Creating a Positive School Culture

August 24, 2021

What type of school culture or school environment do we want at EARJ? I care about this as a principal because the culture or environment of a school can have an impact on the well-being of students, faculty, staff, and parents.

Many years ago I coordinated a program in a large school district in Washington state. My job included visiting many of the district’s schools on a regular basis. A number of the schools had the same architectural design, including layout and floor plan. But regardless of the almost identical nature of one school building to the next, the difference in school culture and environment I felt by walking through the doors of one school as opposed to another was palpable. In some cases, a school felt warm or welcoming or positive or even joyful, while in other cases walking into another school could feel ominous or sterile or chaotic or just depressing. Every school has a culture and environment, whether the school is intentional about this or not.

Thousands of schools around the world have drawn upon research and practices that grew out of the business context to create the culture and environment they wanted. Marcus Buckingham, in his classic book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, drew upon interviews from more than 80,000 managers and more than one million employees. Among the top 10-12 characteristics he found for a positive and engaging workplace environment were such things as: employees knew what was expected, received recognition each week for good work, had a supervisor who cared and paid attention, received encouragement to contribute and improve, could identify someone at work who is a “best friend”, saw people around them committed to doing a good job, felt they were learning new things and getting better at what they did, and they had the opportunity to do their job well.

Now go back through that same list above, but instead of thinking about managers and employees, think about teachers and students. A positive school culture and environment is created when students know what is expected, receive regular recognition for good work, have teachers who care and pay attention, receive encouragement to contribute and improve, can identify a “best friend” at school, see other students around them committed to doing a good job, feel they are learning new things and getting better at what they do, and have the opportunity to do well as a student.

Schools that have successfully focused on building a positive school culture, have taken the elements list above and summarized them as follows; A positive school culture is created when the school environment is predictable (including a common understanding of expectations for everyone), the school environment is positive (including regular recognition for positive behavior), the school environment is safe (violent and disruptive behavior is not tolerated), and the school environment is consistent (the adults, such as faculty and staff, use similar expectations for students). One simple strategy that I have emphasized with my faculty is to ensure that they are acknowledging positive behavior among their students three times as often as calling out negative behavior. Schools that do this consistently see dramatic improvement in overall positive behavior among students.

While I am pleased that students, faculty, and staff can already enjoy many aspects of a positive culture at EARJ, I look forward to a continual focus on further developing and enhancing a positive school culture and environment, so every day can be a joyful place of working and learning together.

Howard De Leeuw
Gávea Upper School Principal

All Together, We Are a Learning Community

August 17, 2021

One of my favorite moments as a school Principal is when I have the opportunity to get into a classroom and TEACH. Yes, I still teach! This may challenge some of you who think Administrators leave behind textbooks and whiteboard markers but it is still present in many of us. Last week I had a teaching opportunity with a G5 class that reminded me of how important it is to be a part of the Learning Community, as a teacher too. I’ll tell you more about this “chocolate”  moment and five ambitious  Grade 5 students a bit later. Let me first set the stage as to ‘why’ we are all part of a Learning Community.

This year the Primary Years Programme (PYP) at EARJ  moves into its second year of candidacy and in Upper School, the Middle Years Programme (MYP) will begin its first year of candidacy. The pursuit to become an IB World Continuum School remains the goal and the stepping stones to achieve this goal will be paved with an emphasis on our Learning Community. The Learning Community, according to the PYP, is inclusive of everyone involved in the life of the school. Together the learning community:

  • Lives peacefully together
  • Prioritizes people and relationships
  • Assumes shared responsibility for learning, health, and well-being


Living Peacefully Together

In the Lower School, teachers and students used the opening weeks to build classroom communities. They developed essential agreements around how they will treat each other. They shared details about who they are and how much they have in common with each other and also how they are different. They started the journey to forming a new community of learners while making new friendships in the process… In the Upper School, students reunited with cohorts of friends and study groups and welcomed a new year back on campus. As part of their MYP candidacy, students will also learn more about the IB Learner Profile and the attributes of international mindedness. These opening weeks laid an important foundation to live and learn together peacefully.

Prioritizing People and Relationships

Extending the EARJ Learning Community to include families and other important members connected to the school is important as these partnerships are key to the work ahead. Through these partnerships, members of the community come together to develop and support a shared vision, mission, beliefs, and values. We can remember from last year how the EARJ community kept the momentum going during the pandemic. These relationships continue to provide a necessary glue to who we are as a Learning Community. They add richness to the community by being actively involved in the life of the school to exchange ideas, build on experiences and provide support where needed.


Sharing responsibility for learning, health, and well-being

So, back to the story of teaching. Last week I was fortunate to grab about 20 minutes in a G5 classroom and introduce one of my favorite challenges to students, “Who can make a $100 word?” I raised the stakes with Ms. Caitlin’s class and said there was a bar of chocolate for the student(s) who found FIVE words equallying $100. Using the value of $1 for the letter A and $26 for the letter Z (you do the math in the middle, LOL) students got to work. To make the opportunity a translanguaging one, I said they could find words in English and/or Portuguese but that the words had to equal $100, not $99, not $101. By lunchtime, two groups of students came to my office with answers. Obviously, the opportunity to collaborate and pull together ideas was worth a single bar of chocolate. I sent both groups back for the evening to clean up and organize their thinking and to make sure they had triple-checked their words for mathematical accuracy. I am proud to share that both groups found 5 separate words that equaled $100!

What was amazing in the end, when I came by to deliver the two bars of chocolate, was how the other students celebrated the accomplishment of their classmates. It was evident they supported each other in their learning and created a culture in the classroom of celebrating achievements quite quickly. Getting to know these five students was a joy last week and I look forward to offering up more challenges to more students in the future. A big thank you to Filipa, Teresa, Lara, Francisco, and Miguel from Ms. Caitlin’s G5 class for putting a big smile on my face last week and allowing me to be a teacher once again!

It is these moments with children we are reminded there is hope in this future generation. To live and learn peacefully, respectfully, and with enthusiasm is the by-product of our Learning Community coming together in the best interest of children. As we continue the journey toward IB World Continuum School status, we will continue to check in with the Learning Community to ensure we are living and working together peacefully, prioritizing relationships and sharing the responsibility of learning, health, and well-being. I look forward to this journey with all of you!

Doreen Garrigan
Gávea Lower School Principal

Keep Calm and Embrace Stress!

May 11, 2021

Our Class of 2021 has gone through a tremendously challenging year for their final year of high school and their final year at EARJ. Expectations for what a grade 12 year would be like were  not entirely in sync with the reality of what this year has been. All of us as a community have experienced the unpredictability, uncertainty, and inconsistency brought on by the pandemic, not to mention the grief and loss that has touched too many in our community and across the globe! Students have gone through multiple variations of learning modes and teachers have had to adjust instruction, classrooms, planning time, and schedules, all while maintaining a focus on learning. Parents have had to do their own adjusting to these variations as well.

So has this been a stressful time for you as a parent, student, teacher, staff member? The answer to this question seems obvious, and perhaps you want to shout “OF COURSE, THIS HAS BEEN STRESSFUL!” We would probably all agree that the past year has been incredibly stressful. However, which statement below would you choose to sum up how you feel about this stress:

A. Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, managed.

B. Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.

Which statement did you choose? This is how Dr. Karen McGonigal begins her book, The Upside of Stress, and she confesses to having to change her beliefs about stress and her approach to dealing with stress because evidence suggests that “stress is harmful only when you believe it is.”

For most of us, we have been conditioned to seek to reduce our stress, to the point that we worry about the impact stress has on our overall mental and physical health. But as McGonigal states, “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can inspire courage and compassion.” She continues, “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

What a challenge for all of us! Instead of commiserating with one another about how stressful this year has been on our children or on ourselves, could we choose to embrace the stress and allow it to transform us? A few quotes shared from a book about stress won’t necessarily change long-held beliefs you might have about stress, but I would challenge you to look at the stress from this past year and find ways to grow from it. I have given up on the idea that we should return to “normal” following this pandemic. Why would we be willing to accept “normal” as the desired outcome? Why not, instead, envision ourselves and our children becoming stronger and more resilient as a result of this past year? As McGonigal writes, “Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include, strength, growth, and resilience.”

Perhaps the reality that no one around the world has escaped being impacted in some way by the pandemic is an opportunity for us to embrace our common humanity. One final quote from The Upside of Stress: “The courage to grow from stress is universal. The strength to persevere, the instinct to connect with others, the ability to find hope and meaning in adversity–these are fundamental human capacities. They can emerge in times of stress no matter who you are or where you are.” As an EARJ community, we will continue to persevere, to connect with each other, to proceed with hope, and to derive meaning that will make us all better for having experienced the challenges of this past school year, whether we are a graduate going off to university or a preschooler promoting to first grade.

Howard De Leeuw
Gávea Upper School Principal