Creating a Respectful Culture


Over the past few years, many Head-Royce Upper School students, of their own accord, quietly thank their teachers as they exit class each day. It’s sincere, low-key and pervasive. It is decidedly not forced or ingratiating but rather a lovely and genuine appreciation for the class they just completed. Not every student does it, but it’s enough to be noticed as a trend.

Making eye contact, saying good morning, knowing how to respond and interact with others, writing thank-you notes--these are all part of the process of growing up and learning how to interact with others, particularly, with adults. It’s good practice for life and it allows all of us on campus, teachers and professional staff alike, to think about our role as the “wise elders” as we shepherd our students through each age and stage. 

I’ve often said that one of our hallmarks at Head-Royce is our skill at helping grow good adults. This kind of respectful, kind and shall I say, “civil” behavior, is also noticed in the workplace and between parents and our teachers and staff as we strive to create a welcoming and inclusive school where all feel that they are a part of our community, and not just visitors or tourists. 

According to Christina Porath, author of Mastering Civility, a Manifesto for the Workplace, we need to examine these crucial skills for our school and work culture. There is much in our lifestyles and the media to distract us from these basic practices, no matter how well-intentioned we are. We are often plugged into our devices, making calls while walking or standing in public places, driving while navigating a conference call, distracted by the myriad of apps, clicks, and buzzes, and, therefore more distracted than attentive. I’ve been guilty of many of these same activities and know that I am not always modeling the most attentive behavior! According to Porath, most of us spend at least six hours a day on email--that’s certainly enough to lose patience and perspective for even the most patience and calm among us!

Porath notes that incivility is on the rise. Road rage, email rage, and frayed edges are amplified as we interact with each other. What can we each do to make our community welcoming and kind? My administrative group and I started by taking Porath’s individual assessment on our own actions. We kept our results to ourselves but it allowed us a way to discuss our interactions with our fellow professional community members and parents. We then spent time on the topic of email and face-to-face interactions. We are not perfect--and now have a to-do list of ways to improve--but these starting conversations allow us to be in touch with our workplace and parent-staff communication. 

The more challenging topic is how to extend our understanding of ourselves and others when we do not see eye-to-eye. How can we debate, argue, listen and understand--even if we do not ultimately agree? This year two Upper School clubs came together to discuss challenging topics: the Women’s Affinity Group and the Conservative Club joined for a robust discussion. They did not expect to agree, but set up norms and an environment that allowed a range of opinions to be heard. Each of the moderators and leaders supported every student's right to speak frankly without rancor. Such artful management led to a meaningful exchange of ideas and beliefs. Krista Tippett, author and podcast host, launched the Civil Conversations Project that regularly features diverse voices and coaches participants to “create space for a new quality of conversation and relationship.” She asks some key questions about ways to cross political and religious divides in order to understand the meeting of communication and community. 

Tippet offers six “grounding virtues” in her Starter Guide to Better Conversations. Two struck me as particularly resonant for our students: generous listening and adventurous civility. Tippet suggests that generous listening is about curiosity, vulnerability, and understanding; similarly, adventurous civility is not just about politeness but rather, “honors the difficulty of what we face and the complexity of what it means to be human.” 

These writers are suggesting some crucial skills we all need to embrace as we navigate our very busy and connected world. I, for one, will start by striving for more generous listening and adventurous civility.

Crystal M. Land