Transforming Student Culture at the Academy Through the Power of a House System

Great Hearts Western Hills house system flags

We are proud to present this guest post by Trinette Keffer, Headmaster at Great Hearts Western Hills, about how the school’s house system is helping students to find a sense of belonging in the school culture.

In the four years that eighth grader Blaine* has been at Great Hearts Western Hills, he has struggled to do anything more than look for ways to do everything but engage in the activity of learning, even though he is a very bright young man. He was also a natural leader, but he tended to seek out other unmotivated and easily distractible folks and focused his energies on finding partners in distraction. That is until he was inducted into House Baggins on the first day of school in August 2021.

To be honest, Blaine wasn’t immediately sold on this whole “house system thing,” but there is one thing that this young man loves and that is football. As soon as he heard that each house had to field a flag football team for the fall intramural season, his interest was piqued. He immediately signed up and showed himself to be a leader on the field, especially with those who were new to the sport.

However, one week into the fall season, progress reports were published, and they showed that Blaine was not passing all his classes. He was devastated because he did not have the skills needed to overcome what seemed to him to be an insurmountable hurdle. Fortunately for him, our Athletic Director already had a plan for house members to receive specific tutoring to help them get academically eligible again. When one of his House Consuls (faculty leaders) came alongside him to encourage him, he accepted the gift of tutoring, and was back on the field at the next grade check. On top of that, he led his house in spirited competition at Athletic Field Day and in planning the Winter House Festival. His trajectory has changed.

Great Hearts Western Hills soccer

Transforming Students’ Lives Through the House System

In the last ten years, the British-inspired house system, which found its roots in Greece and Rome, has become popular among a growing number of classical schools here in the United States. The movement that improved Blaine’s school life Blaine is also positively changing the lives of students whose schools invest the time, energy, and resources in building a house system. I personally have watched it transform the lives of my students over the last five years.

A house system is one of the best ways to bolster academic achievement by building a robust faculty focused on a common vision and tradition, which leads to a positive student experience through a sense of identity and belonging. The ultimate goal is that the students will link arms with their fellow students and house mates in taking ownership of their own education, while also leaving a legacy of traditions for those who follow them.

Great Hearts Western Hills hallways lockers students

Faculty and Student Interaction in the House System

Teachers needs to know that they are influencing students’ lives and that they are making a difference; the house system gives them intentional ways to do that. The teachers are part of the creation of the story and identity of the house and its traditions—we call it house lore. At Great Hearts Western Hills, each house is inspired by characters from some of our most beloved literary authors who are part of the curriculum: C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, and J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit.

The faculty are involved in the sharing of the lore with their house members during house meetings and activities held every Friday. There is fun rivalry amongst faculty and students from different houses that then ignites that good natured fun that builds house spirit amongst the student body; we call it shenanigans. This common identity automatically gives the teachers and students a bond and starting place that can help them further foster friendship and trust as they get to know each other.

This filial love that is created through the house identity bridges the chasm that often exists between faculty and students, which without it would take lots of time and effort to overcome. This overall school culture created by the house system now easily spills into the classrooms, making it easier for teachers to build special iterations that make their micro communities unique without much more work.

Great Hearts Western Hills classroom teacher costume egypt

Emotional Bonds and Motivation

Nothing can replace the connectedness that is created through the micro community of a student’s house, especially for those students who are not naturally and intrinsically motivated. Students often find themselves less likely to comply with the classroom rules and stay focused unless there is an extrinsic motivator. Bridget Glass, doing research on the effects of a house system for Abilene Christian University, found that students who struggle with aggressive behavior, hyperactivity, and inattention are all affected by the kind of relationship they have with their environment. Students with closer relationships with their teachers and peers are more likely to have improved engagement in the classroom.

We also know that outside stressors such as bullying, anxiety and feeling isolated can be a distraction for a student and affect the overall student culture. Creating smaller communities within the larger community where students can make stronger bonds and connections can result in a reduction in bullying and other behavioral problems, lead to academic improvements and develop social-emotional benefits. While we all hope that students see that being good and making positive choices are their own rewards, students of human nature know that sometimes it takes an extrinsic motivator, like contributing to the collection of house points, to recognize that the right choice is the better path.

Great Hearts Western Hills exterior school building

Growing into High School at Great Hearts Western Hills

Great Hearts Western Hills’ house system is still on its maiden voyage, but already reaping the benefits of all the faculty and administrative hours spent dreaming, planning, and executing. The future is bright as we look forward to welcoming our rising ninth graders to house leadership positions next year through either House social committees or our House Mentor Program. As we grow the high school, we hope our upperclassmen will link arms with their teachers who serves as House Consuls to serve the academy in the important role of “keepers of the culture.” In the process of serving, students like Blaine will make memories that will become legendary stories, leaving behind a legacy of traditions for the students behind them to honor and build upon for years to come.

*name changed to protect identity

Trinette Keffer Great Hearts Western Hills

Trinette Keffer

Charter Moms Chats

Trinette Keffer, Headmaster at Great Hearts Western Hills, joins Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on April 4, 2022 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Trinette Keffer is the Headmaster of Great Hearts Western Hills. She was born and raised in Mesa, Arizona, where she first found Great Hearts Academies. She has a BA in secondary education with a concentration in English Lit from Arizona State University and will graduate in May from the University of Dallas with a master’s degree in Humanities. Before moving to San Antonio in 2015, she wore many hats outside of education, including a high school girls’ basketball coach, Special Olympics coach, small business owner, foster parent, and swim instructor. She has been a school leader with Great Hearts Texas for the past seven years and is the mother to two Great Hearts graduates. Her passion is building positive school culture by creating opportunities for students to be involved in purposeful and meaningful community activities and serving each other.

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