The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?

We want students to remember the positive lessons we teach.

By: John H. Lounsbury

Middle grades educators spend almost all their time and energy dealing with what is taught, the content that is presented in classrooms and courses. This is understandable, given the great attention placed on cognitive learning/academic achievement.

But the school is so much more than a physical facility in which teachers present lessons; it is a laboratory of living where ongoing practices and relationships educate. Educators should stop every now and then to consider the lessons the school may be teaching via its programs, policies, rules, and regulations—by its way of life. When doing so, they may be surprised—and chagrined.

A discouraging percentage of what is taught explicitly in the formal curriculum is forgotten in a matter of months. This is a recognized and accepted reality. But the lessons that the school teaches implicitly remain, because they become internalized, subtly but certainly, as students over time live under the school's tutelage.

William Heard Kilpatrick, often considered America's greatest teacher, claimed, "We learn what we live, and we learn it to the degree that we live it." And noted educator Eliot Eisner wisely reminded us that "Schools teach much more—and much less—than they intend to teach."

Much of the "more" that the school unintentionally teaches is positive, and an entire article or two might well be given over to acknowledging and elaborating on the significant, life-changing lessons individual teachers transmit just by being in relationships with students. Indeed, when all is said and done, the influence that the teacher as a person has on the attitudes, values, and behavior of a student may be the most certain and significant "take-away" from a year spent in that teacher's classroom.

The Hidden Curriculum

Fortunately, even though newspaper stories about education seem to be concerned exclusively with reporting on the cognitive side of an education as indicated by test scores—as if that were all a real education was about—most parents do recognize and appreciate the impact that a teacher has on a student apart from the formal cognitive lessons.

However, a good many of the lessons unintentionally taught by the school run completely counter to a school's stated objectives and to the middle school philosophy. It is those undesirable lessons, part of the hidden curriculum, that a faculty needs to recognize, think about, and then consider a way to down-play or counter. Many of these lessons evolve from long-standing practices that are deeply ingrained in our culture and cannot be altered immediately or easily. However, by being conscious of these undesirable lessons being taught, teachers can help students understand the background of practices and gain a needed perspective.

For example, consider the undesirable lessons inherent in most schools' grading systems. Doesn't our uniform, single-standard grading scale run counter to our purported goal of helping all students build a positive self-concept? What conclusion can some students come to when time after time they are expected to excel where all their prior school experiences have demonstrated they cannot possibly place in the top group?

What does the heavy emphasis on grades lead students to conclude about the goal of education? When you stop and think about it, you must recognize that a school via its grading practices actually teaches some kids that they are dumb!

Although it certainly isn't a school's intention, ability grouping practices inevitably teach some undesirable lessons. They teach that some kids are worth more than others. When some students are identified as "gifted," and dealt with in special ways, all other students automatically become "non-gifted"—a label we don't want to place on students who are in the process of becoming.

Consider also a school's typical discipline code and policy. Isn't it based on negative assumptions about the nature of young adolescents? Doesn't it specify consequences for assumed misbehavior rather than confirm positive expectations? Does it often encourage kids to learn ways to beat the system? Do students learn, regrettably, that adults don't trust them?

Food for Thought

In almost all middle schools, we must face the unfortunate truth that lessons that conflict with the school's commitment to providing the best developmentally responsive education possible for all students are inadvertently being taught. The ways we manage, sort, label, instruct, and assess students convey messages. We know that during these malleable early adolescent years, youth are developing the self-concepts and personal standards, values, and attitudes that will direct their behavior in the years ahead, so it does seem most important that the undesirable lessons the school teaches should be faced and educators should take actions to counter them.

Think about it. Consider taking time in team meetings and faculty sessions to tackle this important issue.

John H. Lounsbury is a long-time middle level advocate and dean emeritus of the John H. Lounsbury College of Education at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia.He is a featured presenter at AMLE2014.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2014

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6 comments on article "The School Is a Teacher—But What Are the Lessons?"

I really liked this article. The fact that schools teach more than just the cognitive curriculum lessons they plan to but also have other consequences is I think very true. Some of these ideas like the grading can really have an impact on students self esteem and I think it's important we find a way to make our goals more congruent with what we are doing.

9/27/2014 6:08 PM

I absolutely loved this article! In my philosophy of education I have stated that I want students to learn more than the curriculum. I want them to learn life skills and this article saying that it's actually happening makes me so happy. I have read other articles that agree with the negative side affects of the grading system. This is something I haven't given much thought too, but now I will re-evaluate how grades are done in my classroom.

9/28/2014 5:27 PM

I really like this article and believe that it is very important for educators to be aware of! In the classroom and school environment we have so much potential to teach our students healthy life skills and leadership through positive relationships and experienced. However, we simultaneously run the risk of tearing our students down and discouraging personal growth. It is vital that we be aware of this in order to choose a positive impact for our students and create a school environment that leaves its students with the skills and confidence they need to be strong leaders!

9/29/2014 7:10 AM


I really appreciated this article. In my opinion, I believe you hit the nail on the head by stating how “the school is so much more than a physical facility in which teachers present lessons.” In most cases, students spend more time in school/week than they do with their parents at home. That is why it is important that we, as educators, need to realize that we are role models for them. Knowing from being a student myself, students pick up so very much at school just by observing. The things we teach besides textbook content can be just as, or more important in the future success of our students.

Another point of yours I wanted to touch on is when you spoke of our school’s grading systems and how it can have such a negative effect on the students who struggle with their schoolwork. We are diminishing their dreams of being successful individuals once they leave the school framework.

I think we need to keep these things in mind when we consider what all knowledge we are providing to our students.

2/23/2015 12:21 AM

This article is great, and extremely relevant. As an aspiring teacher I want my students main focus to not be what grade they have, but actually learning and knowing the material. So this article definitely makes me more confident in my thinking that there is a better way out there to get kids to learn yet still grade them, because that is something our society will never let go of.

2/23/2015 1:13 PM

I would like to start off by saying I really enjoyed this article. It says what I have been thinking for a while now. We have to stop allowing a few bad grades label a student. Some highly successful people have at one time or another been labeled by a few bad grades. The way some schools grade kids is a bad system, it causes more bad than good, most of the time. This can led to a society of kids with no confidence and self-esteem. I would like to see this change.

The hidden curriculum of schools should be more of a theme. But, with the panic of state testing and other outside factors it is hard to put a true value on the hidden curriculum. I believe students should learn manners and how to think at school. These are two things that can carrier them a long way, when they are out of your classroom. If you have a classroom full of students who have these to great qualities, it is a win for the teacher. Again great article.


2/23/2015 3:09 PM

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