Brandman Voices: Lawn Chair Fridays changing school cultures
By Amy Besler
As I enter my second year as the principal of Bear River High School, a comprehensive public high school serving nearly 700 students in the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Grass Valley, I continue my transformational change journey with tremendous optimism. The change I seek involves creating a shared identity for all members of the Bear River High School community, as the foundation for our efforts to connect, support, celebrate, and challenge all students and staff.
Through on-going open discussion, we have determined, as a staff, that our vision centers on “creating the school no one ever wants to leave.” This phrase is borrowed from Phil Boyte, a national leader in school culture-building and creator of the Link Crew and Breaking Down the Walls programs, who identifies the fundamental elements of a positive, sustainable school culture, which is grounded in the relationships between the adults on campus. I am also inspired by the work of Mark Crowley, author of Lead from the Heart, who notes that employees want meaning, happiness, and significance from their work.
My team and I have placed a great deal of emphasis on supporting and engaging the staff, with the belief that, if the adults in a school are happy and engaged, everything else will follow. To that end, we have embarked on initiatives big and small, including utterly transforming our staff lounge over the summer (which is now complete with games, a dart board, coffee bar, and more). Last week, we celebrated “Thankful Thursday” by pushing a cart of pastries, coffee, and juice around the school to serve every single adult on campus. Some of them were nearly moved to tears by this simple gesture of appreciation.
Another simple strategy for connecting our staff is Lawn Chair Friday. Each Friday, staff members bring their lawn chairs out to the quad at lunch and spend the time socializing together. Not only is this a great way to connect and celebrate the week, it allows us to model the things we want our students to emulate, including engaging with their community and getting to know others who have different backgrounds and interests. Sometimes students pull up their chairs and join us, too!
Phil Boyte travels throughout the United States and Canada speaking to students and staff members about school culture; he has shared the Lawn Chair Fridays idea with many people. I recently received an email from Phil, in which he stated, “If you knew how many schools are using that idea you would be thrilled!! Thousand Oaks High School in Southern California used it this week along with a number of the Sacramento area schools. Ygnacio Valley High School uses it often, and I know Nevada Union High School is using the idea. Thanks for the ideas that are moving around the country!” I also recently heard from a former student of mine from 15+ years ago, who is now a teacher at Whitney High School… Phil Boyte was speaking to their staff about me and Lawn Chair Friday. She was delighted to proclaim to her colleagues that she knows me, as though I’m some sort of school culture celebrity.
In many ways, it seems the best ideas are the simplest ones. I am delighted that this idea has caught on and am inspired to continue to develop, along with my team, other ideas that will benefit our own community as well as folks in other places. Who knows… maybe someone reading this article will start a Lawn Chair gathering of his or her own… or be inspired to create something even better that I can learn about and implement in my school community.
About the author
Amy Bessler is a student in Brandman University’s Doctor of Education program. She developed Lawn Chair Friday as part of the transformational change project she was required to do as part of the program. It has since attracted national attention.
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