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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Ways to Foster a Positive School Climate

By Peter DeWitt — June 12, 2016 5 min read
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School climate gets thrown to the side of the plate, when it should be the plate that everything else sits on.

School climate. It sounds soft, doesn’t it? When the issue of school climate comes up there are many leaders who lean in and want to do everything possible so all students feel safe and engaged. Other times, the issue of school climate is met with rolling of the eyes, or it’s ignored all together.

School climate is complicated. Especially over the last five or six years, because there has been such a focus on other issues in school that school climate gets thrown to the side of the plate, when it should be the plate that everything else sits on. When I refer to other issues, I’m mostly talking about test scores.

The issue of test scores constantly comes up. Why do we want to do PLC’s? To raise test scores. Why do we want to collaborate? To raise test scores. Why do we want instructional coaches in our building? To help teachers raise their test scores. John Hattie refers to some of this as the Politics of Distraction.

What Is School Climate?
According to the National School Climate Center,

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life and reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.

We have to be careful that our focus in school is not just on achievement, but on growth, and that growth has to include social-emotional learning and not just academic achievement.

We have a real problem in some of our schools because not all students feel safe and therefore they are not truly engaged in the learning process. Instead of looking at test scores, which at this point in our educational history I can’t believe is still such an issue, we need to instead be focusing on engaging our students in different ways, and that is at the heart of school climate.

There are many pieces that help foster a more positive school climate, but the following five are a good place to start. They are:

Attitude - There are two types of people. One who wants to build bridges by finding positive attributes in the people (which includes students) they meet. They pay compliments to people and want to make connections. Others want to be divisive and make people work in order to create a relationship.

Leaders and teachers need to build bridges, and they do that by welcoming students off the bus and in the classroom. They also do that by hanging student work around the school...especially in the foyer which is where parents and guests enter the building. The bottom line is that we need to treat everyone (parents, teachers, students, etc.) like they are doing the right thing until they prove otherwise. Too many adults treat other adults and students as if they’re always doing the wrong thing, when they’re not.

Curriculum - Curriculum needs to include the very diverse student population school buildings may have enter into them each day. One of the issues that comes up a lot lately is that of safeguarding LGBTQ students. When teachers or leaders talk to me about the issue, most want to do something about it. However, I have had leaders and teachers say they don’t have any gay kids in their school. That’s pretty close to impossible.

Make sure the books in the library (age appropriate), the ones teachers read to students, and the curriculum that is addressed in school really depict the lives of all of the students sitting in your classrooms. When it doesn’t depict the lives of your students, you are creating a hidden curriculum that those students...those real life students sitting in front of you don’t matter. Is that what you want?

Address Issues - Very often schools have policies that safeguard students based on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, but when issues come up the leaders and teachers ignore it rather than address it. It’s actually the job of all teachers and leaders to address these issues and not sweep them under the rug. If schools have policies they need to use them. If not, then the policy isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Students know who the teachers are that will protect them from discrimination. Are you one of them?

Student Voice/Engagement - My friend Terry Pickeral wrote this great blog about the difference between student voice and student engagement. Pickeral wrote,

Student voice means that they are part of the conversation, their input is considered but they may or may not have influence on decisions. It means students have an outsider’s input on a system. Student engagement, however, puts students in the position as the primary drivers of work from conceptualization to implementation.

From a building perspective, there are many teachers and students who do not feel they even have a voice, and to Terry’s point, they need to be engaged in the school process. Students, teachers and parents need to be heard, and they should be involved in decision-making. Clearly not every single decision that happens in the school on a daily basis, but in the decisions that affect the whole school community.

Ways to help build voice:

  • Co-construct goals for faculty meetings with staff
  • Co-construct teacher observation goals with teachers
  • Create a Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC)
  • Encourage dialogue and not monologue
  • Encourage students to blog
  • Co-construct student goes with students
  • Flip PTA, open house and other parent information so they can read it first before coming to a meeting
  • Use surveys, but actually do something with them. I was recently asked why parents may not fill out school climate surveys and my answer was that if they don’t feel like anything changes after they take the time to fill them out, why fill them out at all?

Focus on Learning - John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has really hit this one home for me, and it goes back to the opening paragraphs about testing. Our focus needs to be on learning and not testing. Learning is hard, can be messy, and all of our students are capable of doing it. Help them exceed their own expectations.

In the End
School climate is vitally important. Visitors know within minutes whether a school has a positive climate or not. And in these days of social media, parents are talking about whether you have a positive school climate or not. We can’t possibly make everyone within our school happy, but we can certainly keep trying.

The bottom line is that if we don’t have a positive school climate, then we have a lot of students, parents and teachers who are not reaching their full potential.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.