Create a Culture of Learning

This past Wednesday we had a faculty meeting to discuss students that are failing.  The leadership team in our school – made up of teachers – is outstanding!  There are extremely organized people on this team and people who are highly effective educators in our school.  This team works diligently helping make the educational experience for our students useful and successful.  The rest of us need to listen to their analysis and act!

We broke into small groups to identify exactly why a certain percentage of  students are failing.  In our small groups we began to throw around ideas as how to cure this issue but then, after 35 minutes, union contract time kicked in and it was time to punch out for the day.  We had great discussion  amongst colleagues.  We all shared our concerns and agreed on why most of these students are failing.  We all had the knowledge and experience to identify the issues concerning these students that are not succeeding, however we never arrived at concrete solutions.

Is any one else frustrated by this type of dialog?  Apparently the administrators in Rhode Island are tired of all talk and no action.  Don’t get me wrong dialog is great, but when do educators finally make an action plan?  Yes, I include me in ‘educators’.  I can’t imagine what a veteran teacher of 30 years ponders in meetings like these.  If they are anything like me – I have only been teaching for 14 years – they are probably tired of listening and participating in this dialog without action.

My guess is this is a fundamental problem in all forms of business that have so many invisible variables affecting the outcome of the product.  There are so many well conceived action plans formed in textbooks, lecture halls, and professional development workshops that never ‘hit the floor’.  Why?

There was a time not so long ago that I felt so inundated with theories and so overwhelmed with meeting standards for high achievement on standardized tests that I shut down as a teacher.  I felt like the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, which way do I turn?…if I only had a brain.  I was confused, frustrated, disappointed, and humbled by the mountain of theories I couldn’t apply.

How do we motivate the unmotivated students?  We engage them.  How do we engage them?  We assist them in their learning, we help create authentic learning experiences where students can use information and bring it together creatively.  How do we create authentic learning experiences?  We ask our students.

Call me crazy…I know some of my fellow educators will…but all I know is that when I go to Home Depot to purchase materials for my latest home improvement project, I ask the expert for information.  After I collect that information I use it to create my improvement project.  Am I motivated to learn?  Absolutely.  Educators…yes, including me…need to mimic this type of motivation to learn in our classrooms.  It is imperative that we create a culture of learning where information is sought by motivated ‘customers’ from the resident expert, the classroom teacher.  Then, as in the Home Depot experience, the customer and the expert work together to discover exactly what is needed for the project to be completed with mastery.

Let’s stop worrying about if we are supported or who is looking over our shoulder, and let’s make it happen in our classrooms!  Theories are for laboratories.  Our classrooms are not laboratories.  Our classrooms house all the tools we need to create real life experiences, authentic learning, for our students.  Let’s create a culture where our students are seeking information from the experts.  The experts have to be open to learning from their customers by listening closely to what exactly is needed.  In order for this to happen, the experts have to respect the customer, generously assist the customer, and be willing to ask, with a genuine smile, “How may I help you today?”


About jpsteltz

Proud husband and father of four; Literacy Specialist; Reading Teacher; Literacy Coach; HS ELA Teacher; Published Author
This entry was posted in Education, Education Administration, Educational Leadership, Family, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Create a Culture of Learning

  1. Mr. Keenan says:

    Love your Home Depot analogy! This is a very thoughtful and effective post, and gets to the heart of what so many teachers are feeling. We all need to rethink how our classroom operates in this ‘new wave’ of teaching and learning, and you have reframed it in a very effective manner.


    • jsteltz says:

      I appreciate your thoughts!! Education is hard work, but we can’t make it frustrating. We have to cut through the BS and roll up our sleeves and take it head on!!! Stop talking, start doing!! Right?


  2. So what do you do John when you ask the kids what they want to do that their answer is “Ugh, I dunno…live at home…smoke pot…that’s about it. Haha” ? Of course, I’m being a bit sassy here, but I do have students that will say that and never elicit an honest response.

    By the way, I’m asking my Alternative class what they want to study. I’ll see what happens…


    • jsteltz says:

      Jess- I understand the painful process in this, but don’t you think we can get students to respond in a mature fashion if/when they are coached to do so. It’s a complete paradigm shift, but if practiced consistently I believe it might work.

      The question is, what motivates me to ask the questions at Home Depot? That is the motivation we have to instill in our students regarding education.

      Call me crazy….OUT LOUD!!!


    • Angela says:

      I think John gave the answer to this question in the original post.

      “experts have to respect the customer, generously assist the customer, and be willing to ask, with a genuine smile, “How may I help you today?”

      It is really hard to have respect for a student whose goal in life is to smoke pot, but that is what we have to do. We have to be able to look beyond their faults and show them respect, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, but we also have to show them love. I don’t think it is possible to do this on our own, but if you can figure out how to let God’s love flow through you, then you have found the answer.


  3. Kevin van Vonderen says:

    As a customer John you have the intention of buying something because you intend to use it for your project to improve your home. The students we are talking about have no project, and they don’t want to purchase what we are selling. How may i assist you when you do not want my assistance? We are like the annoying salesman who bothers you when you are just looking.


    • jsteltz says:

      The solution is to replicate that which motivates me to go to Home Depot and search for answers.

      I get that…students don’t want our assistance…hmmm…..then, what can we offer them that they might want our assistance?

      I hate that annoying sales person!!


  4. Jason says:

    I love the idea of what you are saying John, but you also are going to Home Depot because you have a project you want or need to do. You are going to the expert to learn. Often the case in our classrooms is we, the experts, are trying to give the information to our students who don’t necessarily always want it or care about it.

    It’s hard not to be negative and I struggle with coming up with effective answers at times. I get really frustrated with myself for that. It’s easy to give up and move on, but that challenge is what also keeps me going. I believe that is what an outsider looking at the teaching profession misses sometimes. We have many challenges every day in trying to get to these kids and help them to learn and grow. If those outsiders understood that, then maybe I wouldn’t hear “Yeah but you get summers off!” anymore.

    Now if I could get my “Math through Interpretive Dance” idea to get on the schedule for next year, I could reach everyone…Or maybe that would cause everyone to transfer to another school… Who knows!


    • Jason says:

      This page was open for awhile and didn’t show Kevin’s response which is similar to mine. Whoops.


    • jsteltz says:

      Math through Interpretive Dance sounds awesome…get it on the schedule!!! If you can think it, do it!!

      One thing that stands out from your comment Jason is that we, the experts, are trying to give information to students who don’t necessarily always want it or care about it….like at Home Depot, I would walk away from the guy trying to sell me paint remover when I really needed paint for my walls.


      • Angela says:

        I can’t help thinking about the salesperson at Home Depot who obviously knows less about the project that I am working on than I do but tries to act like he knows everything about it. That guy annoys me!


  5. Kevin Van Vonderen says:

    It is unfortunate that education is going in the direction it is, but what we are dealing with I can see only getting worse in the future. The number of unmotivated students is getting larger and the number of motivated smaller. This can only transfer into less cooperative parenting with education and more uncooperative and unmotivated students. Thus increasing the number of failing students. We are focusing on the students and maybe we need to be focusing on getting the parents to want to shop at our Home Depot?!


    • jsteltz says:

      Ugh…getting worse. I love your idea of focusing on parents…how do we engage parents?? That’s another whole topic isn’t it?


      • Kevin Van Vonderen says:

        Maybe we need to become better salesman. The government and employment sector need to help us make education vital after high school. Then again maybe education needs to stop being a privilage and become something you earn.


  6. jsteltz says:

    The following from a colleague of mine….

    Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, What am I going to do with you? How dare you suggest that we check to see what interests the kids then gasp teach them using this interest…Making the learning realistic to the point it is life applicable…Back in 1980 a young man entered a rural southwest town with a drop out rate above 70% in their spec. ed. Program. As he traveled around meeting each family he soon found that the family didn’t value the need for sitting in a room but you could learn more from workin’ and runnin’ the tractors, feedin’ the cows….them books ain’t real. Workin’ is real it’s what feeds the family. When asked by the young man what they were paying for interest on their property the reply was-don’t know I trust my banker he’s done right by me all along….what is the projected yield for your crop? Barry at the feed mill will tell me I trust him been doin’ business with him all along…when the young man said I like my brother too but sometimes he takes money from me when he is short without asking or takes my last piece of candy because he is bigger….. I wanted to have control of my things so I began keeping track myself by counting, and rechecking to make sure things were in the right place. The young man went on to tell of how he learned about interest rates for saving in math class and how to organize things and document things in English class etc. These things were real helpful to his life and they came from books but became important when they applied to his daily wants and needs. To make a long story short the young man learned quickly to keep the kids in school he needed to motivate them by letting them out of school to apply their learned skills on actual jobs. The kids saw that if I did well in school I could get out to work longer and then they would come back and ask questions about situations that came up on the job and how could they improve to solve that problem. In a short period the young man was graduating 100% of the students that started with him. These students then went on to tech school and four year colleges so they could run the family business at a more efficient rate some even became business owners! This young man continues today to seek the interest of the individual because not all individuals learn the same. At times he tests the patience of the administrators because there are failures but with progress there is always a glitch. The individual needs to trust fully first and know that even if they stub their toe the guide is there to continue to assist them. The curriculum needs to be flexible also-it doesn’t need to reread the same book or be on a certain page by a certain time. The child didn’t grow that way.. they crawled earlier or later than their sibling or other siblings…they walked, talked, potty trained at different rates so why would we as educators expect them to learn at the same rate? I didn’t like steamed carrots as a kid now at 50 I love them so if my interest changes over time shouldn’t our curriculum and if we did this would we snag more kids? Call me crazy but I think jumping into the void is worth it because you never know what you could find on the other side… it may be even better!-Just a thought for you to contemplate your belly button with John!


  7. jsteltz says:

    This from yet another one of my highly effective educator colleagues via email:

    Maybe we should do something like this to involve the public in the process of improving our schools? Perhaps you would be simply preaching to the choir, but I really believe that it is a community problem that we are facing. People need to care about the appearance of their house before they will be motivated to maintain or improve it. Our community needs to see education as important (which referendum results overwhelmingly show that they do) —– I don’t know. I am just thinking as I type. Maybe it is just that those who take the initiative to vote are the ones who care about schools and education. Those who do not see it as valuable do not vote…? Either way,.. kids need to be raised thinking and knowing that education is valuable. Knowledge is power.


  8. Heidi says:

    I have been teaching for 13 years. I’ve gone to countless hours of staff development. I have participated in workshop after workshop. I have changed my methods, I have changed my curriculum, I have tried to change the environment of the classroom and the school. And yet I continue to see things get worse.
    I’m frustrated and I want to know why people think I have the magic answer to make Johnny suddenly want to do well in school everyday when I spend 51 minutes with him and 28 other students a day. That works out to about 1.82 minutes per student per day.

    I’m not saying I won’t try, but I would like a little more committment from the other people who share their time with these kids. This problem is, in my opinion, a “cultural” issue with very deep roots that go beyond the classroom door. So I honestly believe the answer to the problem lies beyond the classroom door. We are part of a community that shapes the lives and attitudes of its young people. But we are just that, a part. I think it is time for some sweeping change; a paradigm shift as you say. WE need to work as a team; parents, administrators, teachers, business leaders, law enforcement, etc. Otherwise I feel our efforts will once again be for nothing.


    • jsteltz says:

      Heidi-I so understand what you are saying. Trying things, changing things, nothing ever seems to be different in terms of outcomes. That’s what has got me thinking about what motivates me to learn. I am reading the book Drive by Dan Pink right now…I am hoping to find some insight on this whole topic.


    • JR says:

      I appreciate your take. Unless we get past the we/they mindset that is so common it will be difficult to make progress. It really requires a community.


  9. Katie says:

    I understand frustration on none implementation. I wish I knew the amount of time I have spent teaching people techology.I feel some were there just for the money and not even tried to implement anything. Very frustrating for me because my students were not motivated. So is this a sense of today’s society.


    • jsteltz says:

      Frustrating…we ALL are life long learners…at least I would like to think we are. Maybe some of us find our purpose in education w/out purpose therefore we don’t put enough effort into the outcomes we so desire for our students. I know that all of us have the power to change and we are continuously evolving as educators. We just need to do our best to take our jobs, not ourselves, more seriously each and every day!


  10. Dan says:

    I wonder if collectively we in the field of education have failed to have a coherent discussion on the fundamental goals of education. Our answer to student apathy (and mine as well) has been to find a way to interest students by making what they learn applicable to their lives and their own interests. While I still think this is laudable, I wonder if we sometimes do more harm than good in pursuing this. Is the only goal of a solid education to build off of the interests of a child at a particular point in his or her development? Should it only consider the needs of the individual or the needs of the broader society?

    I read this in the comments section of the NY Times a few months ago and saved it because I thought it was a clear argument that, in many ways, goes against the general tide of what seems to be a commonly accepted idea in education today. I don’t know that I entirely agree, but it is food for thought…….

    One gets an education not just to make more money and grow the economy. One gets an education in order to have a foundation in real knowledge about the subjects that have evolved over centuries and have a direct bearing on our society today: not only math and science subjects but also history, one’s own and foreign languages, and the history of ideas. All of this knowledge constitutes the essential property held in common by the citizens of a society, a common bond, and must never be taken for granted but rather continually renewed.

    Over the past several decades in the US, the unifying body of knowledge, and the discipline required to attain it, has been deemphasized. Education has become ‘student-centered’, in an effort to stay ‘relevant’ and continually innovative so that students are never out of touch with the purpose or usefulness of their learning. Ironically, or perhaps naturally, this emphasis on the student has led to the alienation of said student from his own learning process because he becomes less receptive to input, less respectful of the expertise of authorities in their subjects, ie his teachers, and less likely to meet challenges when they require a cooperative effort.

    Thus I think that we should pursue a national initiative to return teachers to their role as experts and students to their role as learners. This will not threaten our national strength as independent thinkers but only restore it. Lately we have become too fragmented and preoccupied with surface effects to think at all.


    • jsteltz says:

      Dan-Thanks for offering your thoughtful insight. I have to say that, on many levels, I agree with you. Educators need to take action on reforming instead of just talking about it. Good leadership can go a long way in helping this become a reality. Again, it is frustrating, as the article points out, that the idea of student-centered has distanced the student from the process of learning. That is thoughtful. As I have said, we keep trying to do things w/out prevailing in this struggle. The only thing I know how to do, from my blue collar roots, is to roll up my sleeves and work like hell to make a difference.


  11. crudbasher says:

    First I love your Blog theme. 🙂

    Math through Interpretive Dance = Epic Win. heh

    Ask the students??? That’s just crazy talk!

    Great observation about how there is a lot of talk and not much action. I had just written a passionate post on my blog called What If Schools don’t Change? Check it out if you want.


  12. Jericho says:

    Hello John,
    First of all, what a wonderful way to reach out to other professionals and to get your ideas out there!
    Second, I’m not a teacher, I’m an interpreter, but I believe this idea is also appropriate for my profession as well… What happens though, when every student wants something or needs something different??? Home Depot has the “tools” for the job, but do classrooms possess the “tools” to help every student?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. lynn says:

    I so appreciate your gift of putting into words what has always been in my heart. How can I help you today?


  14. Neil Barker says:

    Interesting post. I guess my experience with some meetings fall into 3 categories:

    1) Lots of shared ideas…and no action. Just like the meeting described in your post.

    2) Lots of shared ideas around a topic in which management has already determined the outcome…kind of makes all of those shared ideas a waste of time.

    3) Meetings about meetings.

    Although, I’m not in public education (private~corporate), I think the same rules apply, especially re: failing/poor performing students. Thanks for this post.


    • jsteltz says:

      You have nailed it on the head with your meeting categories!! They are sooo frustrating. When will I ever get to an ‘action’ meeting??

      Thanks for your perspective. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Your contribution is well received!!


  15. Theresa Murray says:

    As a person who switched professions in my 30s, I can approach this differently. Seeing the differences between industry and education has been an interesting change. I love the Home Depot analogy.

    It does seem that education often forgets that the student is our biggest customer. I have started working some choice and flexibility into my classroom. Students have been initially reluctant to embrace the change and seek constant feedback. I am hoping that this will change as they get more comfortable. We need to get our customer happy with the service they are receiving.

    I do think that schools need to look at what their customer really wants and find ways to make sure they get it. Applying some quality principles to education could yield fascinating results as schools evolve in the 21st century.

    My district did begin a program with NovaNet this year. It is a way for some of our at risk students to recover some credits. We also have a pro school program that targets students at risk for not graduating for reasons other than academics.

    We also had a faculty meeting to discuss an attendance policy. Great discussion was happening until the end of day bell rang. Many got up and left. It’s sometimes sad to see that investment in the future only lasts as long as contract time.


    • jsteltz says:

      Theresa-Thank you so much for such a thoughtful response. This is a topic near and dear to our hearts as educators. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. All contributions are welcome. We have to continue to work in a positive direction as educators. I believe that our customers frustrate us because they don’t seem to want what we have. It’s a paradigm shift…once we change our mindset we will be able to better serve our customer!!


  16. JR says:

    Another view – view students as volunteers and do all you can to make the work interesting enough that they’ll volunteer to do it. A take on it I learned from Phillip Schlechty.


    • jsteltz says:

      JR-That is an interesting view. I was just chatting with a colleague from My EDU PLN and he mentioned that we need to get students to see our point of view, maybe implying that we could gain empathy. I suggested that maybe we need to see the experience from their point of view.

      The only exception I take to your view, or that of Schlechty’s, is that it implies the teacher must make it entertaining. While that maybe true to some extent, I think that the students that want to be entertained in school are the ones most difficult to motivate. Just a thought…

      Thanks for your contribution!!


  17. dave says:

    I am a parent.
    What I have taught my daughters(now 15 and 19)is more or less a history of teaching from my perspective.
    Forgive me if what I say here offends.

    I have taught my daughters that this country(civilization,really)started rural.
    That as a species,we evolved into more complicated life styles.As we evolved we became more urban,more needfull,more materialistic,thus needing to be away from home to earn a living to provide for our new lifestyle.
    We became a people that started teaching our children ourselves to one that needed assistance from others(relatives)while we worked to earn the things we desired.As time passed,relatives became teachers.
    Schools were formed,studies were planned based on the needs of the community the school was serving.
    Somewhere in this evolution,I believe,something was lost.Perhaps through peer pressure from other communities,states,countries,politics,somewhere the idea that the teacher is teaching the child the morals and beliefs that the parent would if they took the time was lost.
    It may be dangerous to tell my daughters that the teacher is there for THEM.
    However this is my belief.
    A teacher is teaching my child because,society being what it is,I cannot spend the time required.I rely on the teacher,almost to the point of prayer,that the teacher will teach my child and prepare my child using the same morality and values that I would.
    I believe that as a teacher,your job is to do as I would if I were teaching my children.I am paying you to reach the goal that I have set.That goal is to have my daughter better prepared for adult life than I was. I believe that should be every generations’ goal.To become better in some way than the last. I take what my father taught me,add what I’ve learned through school,and become better.
    I have said before,I would never want to be a teacher.I think it unreasonably forces a person to become one of the most judgemental people in society through neccessity.Parents very seldom want to hear negative feedback and always will place blame at the feet of the teacher.I feel to protect oneself,a teacher can’t help but take one look at a student and form an opinion of the person. That is where the original concept of teacher is lost.
    My daughter,who is in college,commented on the fact that her professor only grades,that it is the aide that teaches.My comment was maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.The prof.only looks at the body of work and grades on the merit of the work and if it meets criteria without the vision of the student who completed the assignment.
    We as parents also have lost.We believe that school is daycare.That we should be able to drop the kids off at school and end our responcibility.This is such a poor approach that the only people losing out are our children.WE as parents need to be the ones with a paradigm shift.WE need to realize that we are still the primary teacher to our children,not the teacher.
    It is time for parents and teachers to come together to understand each other.The parent needs to tell the teacher what the parent expects.The student is only someone trying to stretch bounderies between the two.
    The teacher should know where the parent stands,what the parent expects of their child.If the parent expects the child to farm…so be it.If the student wants more,it is up to the student to want to excel.
    Remember where the teaching profession came from,where it’s roots lie.
    In my opinion,you work for me,not my son or daughter.It is up to me whether I want them to become more.It is up to me to provide them with opportunity to succeed.
    I don’t believe the teacher can change this.If the will of the parents is not there for the child,where will the child find it?
    Ask yourself.When a child reaches maturity,and finds the will to succeed,do they ask their teacher”Why didn’t you show this,explain this will I have found?” or do they ask their parents.Do they blame their parents?


  18. jsteltz says:

    It is great to have a parent’s perspective here. You bring up a lot of excellent points and it is obvious that you have given some thought to the education of your children. Unfortunately, not all parents have the sort of thoughts you pose here or even have the expectations you have. I believe, and I think most teachers believe, that parents are a much needed variable in education. The struggle remains, how do teachers engage the parents? How do teachers bring school to parents and get them more involved.

    There are some earlier posts on this topic as well.

    Thanks for your contribution. As I said, it’s important to hear from a parent’s perspective.


  19. jsteltz says:

    This from a colleague of mine via email:

    My first DEAR JOHN letter.
    In much the same way that you are addicted to learning and the educational system, these children are addicted to their way of non-engagement / non-compliance by whatever means (psychological, physical, social, addictions, values, ect…) IF and that’s a big if, authentic tasks were to be the smoking gun all our problems would have been solved long ago. This Idea is not a new and never tried concept. I’ve wrestled with the same frustrations you have. Being involved in the educational system for 30 years we have struggled with student failures at least 4 times. Be it butcher paper, full color transparencies, all out shout and blame games….or categorization it boils down to this.( Call me anything you wish, radical, crazy, right-on, over the hill, ect, ect.) Do we really think that in all the years of educational practice greater minds than ours haven’t tried to solve the problem of motivation. Give me a break!!!!!
    I would hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but just let your self go to a world of all motivated learners. I know your going to say, but, but, what about the unmo…………wipe them off your memory card. Just think how you as an educator could achieve new levels of learning. Learning and achievement would likely increase to new celestial levels. Just the very idea of working with student hungry for learning gives me goose bumps, WOW!!! The places we could go.
    I’ve been involved in all kinds of “this will fix it’s. Guess what? The problem of unmotivated learners has gone from problem to EPIDEMIC.
    The realization that the solution can not be solved by You, I, or the Educational system is very clear to me. The real answers lie in family relationships, culture, and individual values. You may say ,but we can’t do anything about that. Exactly my point.
    Getting the uninvolved student to engage, is like getting an alcoholic to stop drinking. ALCOHOLICS NEED TO HIT BOTTOM. This is where they find out that they need to change their life.
    Real life experiences are “ REAL LIFE “, not something created in the classroom. Add up all the alternatives to the regular classroom that we have in place right now. We are literally giving student credits for almost anything. I believe we have made it easier for students to do little and still receive credit. Lets raise the bar. It’s time to change the laws. Send unmotivated students into the real world. SET THEM FREE. Give the responsibility back to the parent and the child. Now that’s real life.
    Maybe “ real life” will be the key to getting the unmotivated students to come back to school when they are ready to learn. Many students come back after graduation and say, I wish I would have….when I was here.
    If you do find the answer to the motivation and the engagement of students. You will become very rich, book deals, and speaking engagements. Most likely you will become to valuable, and have to be taken out of the classroom.
    Talk to You later.


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