School Bells Ring, but Why?

By Bobby Widalm

For most adults who grew up in the United States, the thought of school conjures up several common images from school desks to whiteboards or chalkboards to textbooks and lockers. And when we think about the sounds of school, many will hear the school bell. As a beginning teacher in a middle school, I welcomed the familiar sound of the school bell to signify the beginning and end of class. It provided us all, students and teachers alike, with the notification to keep to the daily structure.

Fast forward several years after I began working at the district and state offices away from the bustle of schools and classrooms. In these new roles, I attend a variety of meetings and events at different times and often at different sites, so I need to pay close attention to the time and plan accordingly to ensure I arrive in a timely manner to these meetings. I donʻt have the benefit of the bell marking the parts of my day any more.

When I have an afternoon meeting at a high school, I purposely arrive early, just before lunch ends. This gives me the opportunity to observe students like a fly on the wall. I sometimes watch as students gather in various clusters throughout the campus, engaged in conversations. After not regularly being in a school setting, I have a new perspective on school life.

I focus my attention to how students interact and then respond when the bell rings signaling the end of lunch. Interestingly, I do not just see and hear, but almost feel the disappointment from these students as they hear the bell. Some are quick to gather their belongings and head to class while others take their time but within the five minute passing time, almost all the students are in classrooms, the courtyards and hallways now quiet. Just moments before not one of these students seemed to be even remotely aware of when lunch would be ending.

When I was a computer lab facilitator and teacher, I witnessed not just this dependency on the school bell to indicate it was “time to move” but also its use as an excuse to not move. Our school was going through renovations, and it was common for the bells to malfunction. So, teachers would need to step outside and begin herding the students who often responded with “But the bell didn’t ring.” I began to wonder about the school bell. Maybe it isn’t very conducive to helping students be better prepared for the world after school, where very rarely are there bells to indicate it is time to head to work after lunch.

I share this example of the school bell as a widely accepted construct of school we almost never question to help illustrate what I see as a great opportunity for Hawaii public schools. The Hawaii DOE Superintendent, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, is asking educators to examine and possibly revamp their school design through four subcategories: core beliefs and values, instructional design, school infrastructure, and student voice. Although Dr. Kishimoto recognizes schools could begin examining any of these subcategories, I might suggest schools first work collaboratively to develop consistent schoolwide beliefs and values, including student expectations such as the General Learner Outcomes. Once the school community is clear about its core beliefs and values, I encourage school communities to critically examine many of the accepted constructs of school and how those constructs support or inhibit the purpose of the school. For instance, if we truly want students to become self-directed learners, how might the school bell be helping or hindering students in their growth to that end?

I am truly excited at this opportunity for Hawaii schools, and I hope the DOE leverages its tri-level empowerment to provide the necessary resources, support, and flexibility to schools so they have the time, resources, and decision-making power to engage the entire school community in the school design process. How amazing it would be for Hawaii to have a portfolio of schools that may look very different from the common notions of school but ring true to the schools’ shared core values and beliefs while providing students with a highly coordinated and orchestrated educational experience as long as they are at the school.


Bobby Widhalm has been an educator for 20 years and currently serves as a state office teacher in the Hawaii Department of Education’s Office of Talent Management, where he supports the state’s various leadership development programs. Previously, he has taught middle and high school mathematics, computer programming, robotics, and electronics, as well as served as a complex area and state resource teacher. Bobby earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and teaching credentials at the University of Denver.