The Atmosphere

The most formative aspect of school might not even be on your radar.

Doug Sikkema
Doug Sikkema is an assistant Professor of English and Core Humanities at Redeemer University College and an aspiring gentlemen farmer.

What is it about certain homes that draw us in? You know the homes I’m talking about. They possess a magnetism that makes us want to stop by and then linger just a little longer. Usually it starts with the people and how they make us feel as if we were just what they needed. Sometimes it’s an arresting collection of art, or literature, or plants, or music that invite us into new worlds. These homes always seem bigger on the inside. Or perhaps it’s the promise of thoughtful, stimulating fellowship; you know the world will be more capacious afterward. Whatever the case, such homes draw us to them because they possess an atmosphere in which we are easily, unguardedly our best selves. Perhaps yours is a home like this. Perhaps you want it to be.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make, though, is to think such homes are just happy accidents resulting from the right people with the right amount of disposable income and joie de vivre. This is rarely the case. Wealth and opulence, for instance, are almost never clear indicators of a healthy atmosphere. A home stocked with the nicest things guarded by a cold miser who wants nothing touched repels us. Conversely, there are homes with very meager furnishings yet rich in a wit and wisdom and warmth that are signs of a life in abundance. There are also cranky curmudgeons who are more of a delight to be around than some outgoing, charismatic narcissists who make us want to escape at any chance we get. Creating a healthy atmosphere for our homes is a complex amalgam of cultivating our characters while curating our possessions, disciplining our attitudes while forging our relationships.

Creating a healthy atmosphere for our homes is a complex amalgam of cultivating our characters while curating our possessions, disciplining our attitudes while forging our relationships.

Over the past several months, I imagine many of you are now attending closely (more closely than you ever wanted) to your home life. What are the rhythms of your day? What are, to use Tish Harrison Warren’s delightful phrasing, the “liturgies of the ordinary” around which time and routines become patterns of meaning for your family? What ideas and principles guide you? I hope one of the silver linings of our sheltering in place will be the unique opportunity it affords us to think seriously about the places in which we shelter. The homes we make will make us. Are we paying attention?

Our homes will also make our children. So while many of us bemoan that we have become unlikely homeschool parents—Lord knows I’ve almost suffered an aneurysm explaining sentence diagrams—the truth is we’ve always already been homeschooling, whether we like it or not. The home is our first school. This is not to say that curriculum and pedagogy don’t matter—they do!—but your home’s atmosphere applies the constant force under which you and your children take shape. It’s in the food you cook, where you come together to eat it, and how you clean up afterward; it’s the clothes you wear and where you choose to buy them; it’s how you get up, get to work, and wind down; it’s how you yell at one another and forgive one another and cry and laugh and sing; it’s in who comes through your home and shares a handshake or a meal or a night’s stay; it’s in how you talk; it’s in how you talk about others; it’s in your tone of voice; it’s in the rhythms of prayer; it’s in the budget. We are social animals. From the moment we emerge into the world and into families and homes we did not choose, we are being enculturated in how to talk, how to think, how to behave, how to love. Our education starts the minute we enter the world. It starts at home.


Silent Formation

I’ve been a teacher for over a decade now and have taught in the primary, secondary, and postsecondary sectors. I’ve come to believe that this rather elusive concept of atmosphere is arguably the most formative aspect of education that almost nobody talks about. When we do talk about it, it’s more descriptive than aspirational, let alone strategic. Despite lofty mission statements and value propositions and brand campaigns, many schools at all levels spin their wheels revamping delivery methods, innovating curriculum maps, or sharpening student-experience metrics without attending to the interstitial, in-between spaces where most of the real student-formation is happening. We know students need their Advanced Calculus class, but do we think they need a tech-free lunch commons? And what will we do about it?

The nineteenth-century British school reformer Charlotte Mason was a vocal advocate for home education (and might just be the unlikely friend we need in these times). She maintained that “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” To be clear, what Mason is arguing is not that the home must be pristine and worthy of a Home & Garden feature essay. Hardly. Listen to how Mason describes the value of the home’s atmosphere for a good education:

We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered “fusion of classes” is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way.

Victorian prose and sensibilities aside, Mason’s vision is intriguing. The home as an “educational institution”—a phrase Mason would cringe at, no doubt—is not some sterile, constructed environment disembedded from the messiness of sibling scraps, baking, intergenerational drop-ins, domestic chores, animals, or explorations into the countryside. In other words, it should not be a separate thing from home life because school is meant for the home. Children do not learn at home despite these so-called interruptions; they learn by them.

When we return to our regularly scheduled programming, it would be helpful to think a bit more about the relationship that our homes have with our schools as colaborers in the job of child formation and cultural transmission. If schools are, arguably, extensions of the home, have the past several months revealed anything to us? In so many ways we have become conditioned to think that the school is an extension of the state or of industry or some contraction of the two.

While Mason has had some dedicated followers who continue to show another way to school, the overwhelming majority of our Western schooling takes its cues from the entertainment industrial complex. Even in smaller Christian private schools I’ve been shocked by how much of the language belies a co-option by these hegemonic forces of our late-capitalist society. Principals, with the encouragement of their boards, understand themselves to be CEOs; parents are referred to as clients and customers without shame; student feedback is feared by teachers and administrators and teachers alike because they know how such consumer reports drive policy decisions; student happiness at all costs makes discomforting experiences like manual work or poor grades or even discipline increasingly improbable. I once heard a principal of a Christian private school, without irony, excitedly talk about plans for a new school library construction project that “will feel just like a Starbucks!” Such an atmosphere will shape students in certain ways. Education is always the transmission of a culture, but are we aware of just what—or whose—culture we are transmitting?

“The child breathes the atmosphere emanating from its parents,” Mason wrote, “that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” We might add that children breathe the atmosphere of their schools which are the ideas that rule teachers, administrators, boards, and parent communities. Schools would do well, when we return, to gather their community of parents—who are ultimately co-teachers—and think about the type of atmosphere they want for their schools understood to be extensions of their homes. What benefit would classroom chores bring? Does it matter what our students wear? How might intergenerational relationships be meaningfully forged? Where does our food come from and who cleans it up? What formative role do the times “between” classes play? Is there space to explore the neighborhood and learn the names of local flora and fauna? Is that a priority? Are the teachers the sorts of people students want to be around outside of class? Are students the kind of people we want to be around outside of graduation?

Atmosphere is not a choice. Every school will have one. The question that falls on us is, Will we take the time to understand ours and create the conditions in which our students will thrive? Not as entitled consumers or epicures-in-training, but as children who have a well-furnished imagination, dependable and virtuous characters, grit, attention, and well-ordered affection. And while schools might be very good at curriculum vision and pedagogical delivery, they often fail in cultivating a healthy, educational atmosphere for two very different reasons, both of which I’ve seen firsthand as student and teacher.

The first school I’ll call Jupiter, which, at one of its lowest points, would have students get off the bus only to be met by a vice principal who would hand out little slips for uniform infractions. Untucked shirts, non-uniform socks, brand-name undershirts, or kilts that flirted dangerously above the accepted knee line would warrant one of these little pieces of paper. Slips were given throughout the day too, for all kinds of other misdemeanors: being late to class, talking out of turn, running in halls. In an attempt to disciple students, the leadership of Jupiter opted for a “three strike” policy of sorts. Three slips led to a detention; three detentions to a suspension. In its arguably well-intentioned attempt to curb a rather undisciplined school body, Jupiter created an atmosphere that was oppressive, anti-authoritarian, and filled with suppressed (and not-so-suppressed) anger. Disciplined students follow rules, but it turns out that a rigid, fearful observation of those rules does not a great school make. It ignites rebellion.

In another school we’ll call the Moon a completely different approach was taken for discipline. Words like “restorative justice” buzzed through the staffroom and administrative offices and there was almost no punishment or consequence for any student behavior. Class start times were suggestions and students rolled in at their convenience, uniform compliance required constant reminders, and the use of phones and other distracting devices in and out of class was so pervasive teachers had to build in “text times” so students could relieve their device anxiety. The Moon’s motivation for this arguably “lax” approach was to better prepare children for an adult world where the structures of buzzers, detentions, and constant teacher and principal attention simply does not exist. If children are going to be punctual, courteous, and diligent, then, the Moon leadership maintained, we should embody it but never enforce it. This choice created a particularly different atmosphere from Jupiter’s, but neither was conducive to life.

My hunch is that schools who take the heavy-handed, top-down approach of Jupiter crush students under their oppressive atmospheres. School culture that is not allowed to grow organically will wither. The Moon, however, held children so loosely, they flew away under its well-intentioned lunacy. A school culture must be organic, but administration must delineate the bounds in which this growth occurs.

Atmospheres need not be accidents.

What if there were a third way our schools cultivated an atmosphere, one where children belonged and felt at home? What if there were a school atmosphere in which children thrived because it felt a bit more like a home that was made for them? Imagine with me a school, I’ll call it Earth, where the atmosphere not only tethers one to their place but also gives life. It’s a place people want to be. The school is run by a principal who is the first student. She considers herself a shepherd of young souls, guiding teachers and students to delight in what’s true, good, and beautiful. The library is carefully stocked with beautiful, living books that furnish children’s imaginations with some of the most worthwhile things ever written or thought. There are old chairs and pillows to relax in; most of them were donated. The hallways are not littered with flickering screens, and students are not permitted to have cell phones at the school at any age, not because the school is technophobic or outdated, but because they share a love for the child’s attention and would do anything to nurture it. Mothers and fathers frequently drop by to help in the classrooms or on the schoolyard. They often bring along their younger children and the occasional grandparent. Children are taught to stand when a guest enters and to look adults in the eye and to give them a firm handshake. There is a garden where students grow vegetables, and after school each student is given a chore to help clean the school. Mornings are patterned by school-wide liturgies where ancient catechisms are memorized, prayers are offered, and songs are sung. The curriculum is rigorous; homework is rare. The school is restful.

Some of these are obviously aspirations, and perhaps ones you might not share. That’s okay. But the point remains: atmospheres need not be accidents. Parents, boards, teachers, and administrators can create the conditions for a healthy school atmosphere without overtly controlling it or simply letting it run its own course. When we return, I would love for townhalls, board-parent nights, and community meetings to take place in order that more people can feel empowered to shape the culture of their schools. School is not simply a state or commercial activity you pay for, drop off your kids, and call it a day. Education is the transmission of a way of life, your way of life. When this is over, let’s talk about what we have learned about our home culture, warts and all, and then let’s start to shape the types of spaces that continue to bring us together when coming together is possible once again.