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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 Ways to Create a More Positive School Climate

By Peter DeWitt — November 28, 2016 4 min read
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We seem to be surrounded by negativity. Whether it’s angry Tweets, negative Facebook rants, or the sad, sad world of the evening news, we are hit with negative images and words every time we open our eyes or turn our heads. Sometimes I feel like ducking just to see if the negativity will fly over me. It’s heavy to deal with, especially around the holidays, and it has a negative effect on our social-emotional health.

If we thought the negativity would end after the election was over, we were sadly mistaken.

Am I the only one to feel this way? After all, fall is turning over to winter in upstate, NY and it’s now time to warm up our cars on a Monday morning before we go to work. Perhaps the cold is getting to me? I would venture to guess other people are feeling this way too. And personally, I believe this heaviness that we feel is being distributed among our students as well.

Which negatively affects our school climate.

Before our students can learn and our teachers can dive into authentic engagement, we have to make sure our school climates are a place that foster growth and innovation. Most of all, our school climates must be places that focus on strengths and not always on deficits.

Our Happy Place?
My friend, and middle school principal, Donald Gately Tweeted out this NPR article on the importance of a happy school climate. NPR writer Kat Lonsdorf wrote,

A study published in the Review of Educational Research today suggests that school climate is something educators and communities should prioritize -- especially as a way to bridge the elusive achievement gap. The authors analyzed more than 15 years of research on schools worldwide, and found that positive school climate had a significant impact on academics.

Lonsdorf went on to write,

For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include non-academic factors -- like school climate -- in how they gauge school success. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released an online toolbox to help administrators better measure and understand the school climate. One recent brief even linked a positive environment with improved teacher retention.

School Climate Change
In School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning (ASCD. 2014) Sean Slade and I wrote that, “We believe there are four critical elements to school climate which are:


  • Engagement
  • Empowerment and Autonomy
  • Inclusivity and Equity
  • Environment”

In looking at environment, there are many simple and complicated ways to improve the school climate. One of the simple ways to improve the school climate is through smiling more or welcoming people at the door, whether we are talking about students, teachers or parents. One of the more complicated ways is to focus on school climate is through the use of school climate surveys, like the one provided by the National School Climate Center, and discussing the results with staff and then taking actionable steps toward improving it.

There are at least 7 other ways to improve school climate, and help turn around some of the negativity that we seem to be hit with on a daily basis. Those 7 ways are:
Focus on creativity more than compliance - We all have compliance issues we have to deal with but they don’t have to always get in the way of our creativity. Try having a no testing week, which you can read about here. Or, encourage the use of makerspaces and innovative learning like that. Flip faculty meetings or schedule an edcamp.

Be happy for others - Sounds simple but it’s not. Not everyone is happy for others when they do something positive. If someone is being recognized for an accomplishment, don’t tear them down...congratulate them.
Focus on accomplishments of students - We have too much of a deficit model when it comes to students. We need to focus on growth and the strengths of our students more than we have to focus on what they cannot do.
Create positive relationships with stakeholders - Remember when our biggest lesson from our teacher training was to stay out of faculty meetings? Let’s turn that around and make the faculty room and hallways places where we talk more positively about parents, students, teachers and leaders. John Hattie’s research (I work with Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer!) shows us that teacher-student relationships has a .72 effect size, and that teacher credibility has a .90 effect size, which is well above the .40 hinge point that represents a year’s growth for a year’s input. We need to create better relationships and make sure they are authentic.
Make 5 positive calls this week - In Edutopia, Elana Aguilar wrote about the power of positive phone calls. Read the article here. The old adage is that we hear 10 negatives for every 1 positive. Let’s turn that around!
Listen to what others say, even the people you disagree with them - The elections should have taught us this lesson but it didn’t. We need to listen to each other, especially if the other person doesn’t agree with us. Diversity in thinking should be a strength and we may actually find common ground at the end.

Pay it forward - We have an obligation to pay it forward when something positive happens to us. We should feel fortunate if we have a loving family, good friends and a roof over our heads. We need to pay attention to the body language and self-efficacy of those people around us and help lift them up when they are feeling down.

In the End
It’s the holiday season, which means we drive erratically to get to the best sales in town, have a short temper because we’re trying to get things done on time, and we are burning the candle at both ends because of too many holiday parties. Step back and breath. Be conscious about what you are putting out into the universe...and more importantly, what you add to the school climate.

We know times are tough and that this is a time when school morale can take a hit. However, remember that every single person in the school building contributes to morale which affects the school climate. Do you want your contribution to be positive or negative?

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). 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.


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