School & Classroom Ethos

Reposted from my Circe Column (8/30/12).

“Ethos is the in articulate expression of what the community values.  It includes the quality of relationships within the school, the traditions, the professional comportment, the approach to classroom management, the out-of-class decorum, the aesthetic personality of the school reflected in the student and faculty dress codes, the visual and auditory imagery, and the physical plant itself…Ethos is the way in which the school expresses (or doesn’t) truth, goodness, and beauty through the experiences of every person who enters our halls.”

  – From Wisdom and Eloquence by Robert Littlejohn & Charles T. Evans

I vividly remember entering St. Michael’s chapel for the first time – the equilateral arch, the faint echo of the stone narthex, the coldness of the holy water. We were greeted by beautifully colored windows, portraying various scenes from the Gospels.  It was the first Friday Mass for our Kindergarten class and I cannot imagine the courage it took for Mrs. Crowley to take 15-20 five-year-olds to church.

Yet, among the things I remember most clearly is what was missing upon our entrance to the church. My teacher, the woman who (according to the 5-year-old me) made her living telling us to be quiet, never said a word.  She directed us to our pews, but never had to silence us. We were, for the moment, overwhelmed with beauty, awe, and the “differentness” of the place.  Across the parking lot, our kindergarten classroom was worlds away, and we knew it.

Pass over a few chapters, roughly ten years worth, to my first day of high school, just one mile from St. Michael’s.  Dedicated to keeping students safe, the school graciously introduced a barbed-wire fence around its perimeter.  My first day, and I felt better already. After walking through the metal detectors and past the armed resource officers, I entered the camera-monitored hallways to find my locker.

From the clash of locker doors to the loud click of the automatically-locking classrooms, the place seemed encased in metal.  To reduce violence and aggression, we were made inmates.  To provide safety, were made afraid.

We become what we behold.  When we surround our students (and ourselves) with beauty, we feed their souls and train their tastes on what is beautiful.  But, the converse is true as well.  Teaching in schools without armed guards and brutal fights in the lunch room is certainly a nice start, but we cannot content ourselves by stepping over the lowest bar.

How we adorn our hallways, classrooms, lunch rooms, and sitting areas does matter.  The music played during study times and what is sung during assemblies and “chapel” times forms tastes.  The color of the walls (or lack thereof), the desks or tables we select, and the way we arrange them says volumes.

Try this little experiment, either with a literal walk-through or just as a mental exercise.  As best you can, pretend you are walking into your school, classroom, or homeschooling area for the first time.  What does it feel like?  How would you describe the atmosphere or ethos of the place?  What matters to the people who put this place together?  If you spent dozens of hours per week in this place, how would it affect you, your tastes, and your soul?  And, with those answers in mind, what corrections need to be made?

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