You and Your Classroom’s Culture

We had a to make a choice. A core, fundamental, how-do-we-want-to-walk-through-this-world kind of choice: Are we “institution-centered” or “client-centered”? That is, do we put the financial well-being of the institution first or do we put the clients first? The “we” I am referring to was La Ceiba – the microfinancial institution my students and I operated in Honduras from 2008-2018. La Ceiba was also a class. And, this grand, existential, organizational question was motivated by a proposed increase in our interest rate that was being put forward by two of my students. We debated their proposal for the entire class period. We debated after the conclusion of class. And, we debated as we walked the sidewalks of campus to our other classes. We debated like this for successive class periods. Their reasoning for the proposed interest rate increase was sound. It conformed to the best microfinance practices. Yeah, that’s right, raising interest rates on poor people was a best practice in the microfinance industry. And, yes, microfinance was an industry. Anyways, they were on solid theoretical foundation. They were passionate. They were vocal and convincing. And, they were right. An increase in our interest rate would help us become financially sustainable. However, they were not talking about a modest increase in our interest rate. Their proposed interest rate increase made me blush. Other students in class felt similarly. They asked “Why should the clients have to carry the weight of our financial sustainability?” and “Couldn’t we find alternative ways, creative way to reduce our costs?”

We were a young organization, just beginning our fourth year of operations. And, from the very beginning, we decided that we would put the clients first. I thought this was already settled. However, running an organization like La Ceiba as a class inside a university was challenging. In particular, each year we graduated some, most or all of our community members. In turn, one of our most difficult challenges was transmitting our culture from the cohort of students who were graduating to the cohort of new students arriving to take their place. Now, one of the ways I addressed this challenge was by encouraging students to reenroll in the class. That is, I would ask juniors who were working alongside and learning from our soon-to-be-graduating seniors to reenroll and retake the class as seniors. I called them returnees. Indeed, on a few occasions, I had sophomores retake the class as juniors and then retake the class again as seniors. Don’t ask me how this was possible. I do not know. I just let it happen. I needed it to happen. Because, those who retook the course were the carriers of our culture from one cohort on to the next. And, at the time of our debate over the proposed interest rate increase, the core set of students who had most vehemently championed our “clients come first” cultural mandate had just graduated. This cohort was charismatic, influential and completely dedicated to our vision. They relentlessly explored the ethics of the work we were doing with clients. It was inspiring. Every program, every policy, every step we took as an organization was mercilessly scrutinized for its potentially adverse impact on our clients. Our objective, they firmly declared, was to build mutually beneficial relationships with our clients not fill our coffers with their meager earnings. Their graduation was the third turnover of community members in our history. In terms of cultural consequence, it was the most significant.

Of the eleven students debating the proposed interest rate increase, five were returnees. They had taken the class as juniors with the seniors who had championed our “clients come first” cultural mandate. Among those five were the two students advocating for the interest rate increase. They were full of new ideas, approaches and perspectives. And, from the very start, as an organization we believed in creative destruction. That is, everyone had a right to question, challenge and if need be, discard the work that earlier cohorts of students had diligently created. Indeed, in the near future, this right would become one of the eleven promises that we would make to one another. What these two were doing was what we needed them to do. However, unlike the other three returnees, neither of them had gone to Honduras with us the year before. In turn, neither of them had had the chance to meet our clients face-to-face and witness our clients’ material poverty. That was important. Because, it is one thing to use sound financial reasoning and spreadsheets to guide the setting of an interest rate. It is something entirely different to sit with one of our clients, read aloud their loan contract (highlighting how much they are going to pay us back) in the presence of their family members and our Honduran Loan officer and use this experience to guide your setting of an interest rate. And, just for the record, our clients wanted to pay interest. We floated the idea of zero interest rate loans with them. The idea insulted them. However, the proposed interest rate increase contravened our “client-centered” approach. That is, it put the financial health of La Ceiba before that of the client. Now, once again, this makes sense. In order to serve our clients now and into the future, we needed to cover our costs and make investments in operations, personnel and the development of new programs.

I had my position on the debate. I thought raising our interest rate was the easy and expected thing to do. But, unlike the traditional classroom in which decision-making power is fully and completely centralized in the teacher, in La Ceiba decision-making power was dispersed. We practiced a form of direct democracy. That is, everyone who wanted to have a say got a say. We did not pursue unanimity. We did not pursue majority rule. We didn’t pursue any particular raising-of-the-hands, count-the-votes, yea-or-nay outcome. We pursued a process. We wanted everyone who wanted to have a say to get their say and feel like their say was heard. Sometimes, for some of us, that meant that the decision did not go our way. And, as part of my Rewilding pedagogy, my role in this process, beyond continuously monitoring the healthiness of the debate and offering an insight here and there, was to stay out of the way as the community struggled toward a collective co-created conclusion to the debate.

So, the debate raged on and on. Indeed, it was starting to consume us. And, eventually, it spilled over into a meeting I was holding on another project with other students. Some of my La Ceiba students were in attendance. And, at that meeting’s conclusion, my La Ceiba students stayed behind to talk about the proposed interest rate increase. I listened carefully, paying particular attention to who was saying what. Like any organization, within La Ceiba, the words of some carry more weight than others. And, remember, there were only five returnees in a class of eleven. That is, five potential carriers of our client-centered culture. Now, of course, two of the five were the ones proposing the interest rate increase. So, that left three. And, of those three, one was unwilling to take on leadership responsibilities. So, that left two. These two were the perfect carriers of our culture: thoughtful, generous with their listening and careful in their weighing of the pros and cons of any and all decisions. However, their leadership style was quiet. They were still growing, still figuring out how to fill their new roles in our community. Indeed, one of them was in attendance at this meeting. And, in their instinctively generous way, they were giving a lot of space to the “institution-centered” side of things. Like I’ve said, rightfully so. We lacked financial sustainability and it was a constant source of stress that taxed our collective minds. However, at this meeting, they said something that set off alarm bells in my mind. I do not remember exactly what they said. But I remember the facial expression that attended their words. Their facial expression was full of doubt. They were not ready, not at this stage in their leadership development, to defend our “client-centered” culture. This scared me. I was already struggling to transmit the thoughts, the beliefs and the why of our “clients come first” mandate to the new students. And, the new students needed to hear these things from one of their own – a fellow classmate. I needed co-conspirators in the transmission of our culture. But, I was alone. And, that’s when I concluded that the tide was turning in favor of the interest rate increase. The “institution-centered” camp was making inroads. And, as I continued listening, I tried staying behind my duck blind. I tried to adhere to my non-interference directive. But I didn’t. I interjected. I did something a teacher committed to Rewilding their students should rarely if ever do. I exercised the autocratic decision-making powers invested in me by our educational system. I told my La Ceiba students in attendance, “If you choose to raise the interest rate, I’ll walk away and find another group of students to work with.”

I shut down the debate. But, here’s why I did. As an organization, we were in the midst of a cultural invasion. Maybe that’s too strong? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Our “client-centered” culture was at risk. And, there was no room for more than one culture in our organization. Yes, there was plenty of room for new ideas and challenges and healthy debate. And, yes, our culture was malleable. It evolved. However, our culture was anchored in the “client comes first” mandate. And, that is where it had to stay anchored.  So, I intervened. I exercised authority that an educator committed to Rewilding their students should exercise with extreme caution. I made a unilateral and uncontested decision. And, in an effort to save our community, I risked destroying it.

Students are conditioned to accept without question an educator exercising their autocratic decision-making authority. They are accustomed to sitting quietly and being told the what, why, how and when of doing things. They are accustomed to being consumers of knowledge, not creators. So, when we educators exercise our autocratic authority, students too easily acquiesce and quickly fall into a sullen silence. And, in La Ceiba, I needed my students to stand up to me, challenge me, and threaten the pre-existing ways of our organization. Each and every new student was a source of dynamism. And, I did not want to overly constrain them in what they could do by dictating what it was they could and could not do. But, there was a tension. I did want to constrain how they were going to go about doing what they were looking to do. Namely, whatever they were going to do, they had to have an intense commitment to our clients and their well-being. Those advocating for an increase in the interest rate were advocating for a position that was incorrect for our culture.

In Rewilding, one of your responsibilities as a teacher is to safeguard the culture that you and your students co-create. You (the educator) do this by carrying the history of your organization and transmitting that history to successive cohorts of students by sharing stories. You do this by screening prospective members of your community and staying keenly aware of how the size and makeup of your community impacts its cultural dynamics. You do this by keeping an intense eye on the words being used by your students, their body language and the kinds of relationships they are building with one another and the community with which you work. And, sometimes, in extreme situations, especially when your community is young, you foreclose the possibility of invasion of your culture by another way of thinking by exercising the autocratic authority invested in you by our traditional educational system.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash