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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

7 Simple Steps to Create a Positive School Climate

By Peter DeWitt — April 02, 2018 5 min read
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Too often one leader may be blamed for creating a negative climate, when the reality is that we all contribute to a positive or negative school climate. Our attitude every day plays an important part in our school climate.

Over the last few weeks we have seen students stand up and protest. As many celebrate these students for finding their voice and wanting something different in their lives, others aren’t celebrating because they don’t want students to have a voice on this particular issue. Those who oppose believe students should consider other options other than protesting for new gun laws. These issues have an impact on our school climate.

After all, school has always been considered a microcosm of society at large.

On top of all of the protests and fear about student safety, schools face their “normal” issues as well. School leaders and teachers have to worry about federal mandates, state accountability measures and district initiatives, at the same time they have to worry about student safety, high stakes testing, as well as social-emotional and academic learning. All of that weighs heavily on the minds of teachers, students and leaders, which impacts school climate.

According to the National School Climate Center, school climate is defined as 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.”

For me, school climate is how we feel when we walk into a school building. Do we feel like a welcomed part of the community? Or do we feel like a guest who shouldn’t stay long? And yes, this includes students as well. After all, not every student is welcomed in their school. We know the old saying, “You don’t have to go but you can’t stay here.”

7 Easy Steps
Considering how difficult things are in our school communities, leaders and teachers are looking for ways to create a more positive and supportive school climate. They are constantly looking for practical steps to take that will foster a school climate where more students feel included, because we know all too well what can happen when students feel excluded.

I believe it comes down to 7 simple steps. These 7 steps come from research (DeWitt) as well as practical strategies that other school leaders and teachers have applied in their individual classrooms and schools. The 7 steps that I believe foster a more inclusive school climate where all minoritized (Harper) populations can feel included are:

School Board Policies/Codes of Conduct - If it is written in our school board policies and codes of conduct it is easier to support both during good times and bad. When leaders receive pushback about inclusive curriculum (i.e. LGBT, Racial Issues, etc.) from parents, teachers or community members, they will have an easier time negotiating their way through that pushback if their board policies and codes of conduct support the teaching of the topic in question.

Images in Hallways - Images matter. If they didn’t, none of us would be on Facebook or Instagram. We gravitate to images because they evoke strong feelings inside. They remind us of simpler times, or inspire us to step outside of our comfort zones. The image at the beginning of this blog is from Orchard Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. Imagine what it must be like for students to walk in every day and see such an amazing image that represents the student diversity within the school.

Inclusive Curriculum - Inclusive curriculum means that all minoritized students are represented in the curriculum they learn, and that it doesn’t just happen during months dedicated to them. Topics like race, gender and sexual orientation are included in curriculum, which may play out through debates, classroom discussions and classroom Ted Talks.

Inclusive Books/Novels - Inclusive books and novels means that minoritized populations are included in some of the books and novels used in our schools. There was a time when our indigenous populations were covered in books and novels, but they were not represented in a positive way. There was, and still is, a time when our LGBT community is only represented in health class when we talk about HIV/AIDS. We need to make sure that all of the diverse groups that call our school communities their home are represented in a positive way in our schools.

Common Language - This isn’t just about making sure we are just being sensitive to the different populations in our school. It means that every time we use educational acronyms like RTI and PBIS, or words like student engagement, differentiated instruction and growth mindset, we all have a common understanding of what those words mean. Not everyone understands the words we use in conversations, and sometimes that includes our own school staff.

Training from Professionals - In NY State, where I reside, schools will be responsible for teaching mental health curriculum. Teachers, school psychologists and leaders will have to work together to define the best route for teaching the curriculum. However, leaders, teachers and staff will no doubt need the help of outside professionals to make sure they use the right language and are prepared for sensitive questions that come up. There is a risk that the outside groups will come in 10 steps ahead of where school professionals are in their understanding of the curriculum. We need to make sure that outside professionals understand the context of the schools they will be working in, and not talk down to the school professionals. We need to vet the resources to make sure they are age appropriate.

Our Attitude - Nothing shapes our school climates more than our attitudes. Too often one leader may be blamed for creating a negative climate, when the reality is that we all contribute to a positive or negative school climate. Our attitude every day plays an important part in our school climate. We don’t have to agree on every issue that comes up in schools, but we do have to make sure we provide a safe and nurturing space for students so they can grow on an academic and social-emotional level.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Tim Lauer. Orchards Elementary School. Evergreen Public Schools (Vancouver, WA).

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.