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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Actions Speak Louder Than Words When It Comes to School Climate

By Peter DeWitt — July 01, 2013 5 min read

“If the fish stinks, it stinks from the head down.”

School climate is one of those areas that school leaders say they care about but their actions may be contradictory to their words. In other words...they don’t practice what they preach. Or worse, they don’t care that their actions hurt others or ruin the climate in their school.

Let’s face it, that philosophy is what is happening at the state and federal level where mandates and accountability are concerned.

However, what about at the building and district level? As much as mandates and accountability may be contributing to a negative school climate, so are the actions of those who lead and those who teach in our schools.

There are leaders who:
• Abuse their power
• Create a hostile work environments
• Are not open to suggestions from staff and parents

There are many leaders who say that they want everyone to treat each other fairly, and then indulge themselves by treating their staff and students with a lack of respect. They may even have character education posters hanging around their schools that focus on acceptance and honesty, but those words are not a part of their personal vocabularies.

Teachers play an important role in school climate. All educators, whether they are teachers, principals or superintendents, contribute both positively or negatively to the school climate. After reading some of the comments on the ‘Badass’ Teacher Facebook page, there seem to be many teachers who work in a negative school climate, which is really unfortunate, because there are excellent schools with excellent school leaders all around the country.

Positive School Climate
There are many schools that promote an inclusive school climate where everyone feels they are valued. Sure, they have moments of tension but every workplace does, and should, have those issues. It’s what we do about it that matters.

Mandates and accountability are being forced upon us and they are negatively impacting school climate but, does school climate have to be as negative as it is in certain schools? Are there ways to improve it that don’t cost money? Are there areas we can all tweak to have better outcomes.

School climate is highly complicated. There is an old saying, that “if a fish stinks, it stinks from the head down.” This is absolutely true, and if a school leader isn’t open to hearing feedback, there is no chance that the school climate will ever change...and many individual school climates need to change.

It all comes down to relationships:
• How do teachers build them with students?
•How do leaders build them with staff, students and parents?
•Is there an infrastructure in place that allows for feedback?
•After feedback is provided, is anything done about it?

According the National School Climate Center (NSCC), “A growing body of empirical research demonstrates that effective school climate improvement efforts increase student achievement, reduce high school drop out rates, prevent violence, and promote students’ healthy development.”

NSCC goes on to say,
“A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in a democratic society. This climate includes: • • Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
• People are engaged and respected.
• Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
• Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
• Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.”

What are the collective efforts that schools are taking to change their school climate? Maybe they’re not making any changes at all and are hoping their problems will fade away. Just to be clear, that will never work.

Are they buying a canned program, doing nothing about it, and expecting just because they have a canned program their climate will change? That will never work either. In the words of Todd Whitaker...”It’s people not programs.”

What Can We Do About School Climate?
Educators, parents and students all have a stake in school climate. They all contribute to it. What makes a school climate worse is when it’s negative and no one does anything about it. We all have bad moments where we may not get a long, but when the school climate suffers and it’s negative year after year, school leaders and staff must address it.

If they cannot see their way out of an issue, perhaps it’s time to call in outside experts. Unfortunately, over the years since NCLB we have seen “outside experts” come in many shapes and forms. We have seen consultants who do “drive-bys” and are there to collect a check. In the end, they do very little to help in any way and make us feel a bit violated after the fact.

Not all organizations and consultants are like that. There are some who are passionate and knowledgeable about school climate. Jonathan Cohen, the President and Co-founder of the National School Climate Center (NSCC) has a great deal of expertise when it comes to school climate. NSCC offers one of the most comprehensive resources where school climate is concerned. If leaders are looking to improve their school climate, and actually want to do something about it, the NSCC is a great place to start.

Action Steps for Schools:
Structure - Create a structure that will engage in the school climate conversation often. In the building where I am the principal we have our Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC). It is co-chaired by two teachers and there is a representative from each stakeholder group.
Build Relationships - Most educators, especially elementary educators, love to engage with one another. Set up a monthly breakfast so they can see each other in a more informal setting.
Flip Communication - Create a short Prezi presentation and record yourself with Screenr and e-mail parents the video. Make it simple...the day in the life of...their child.
• Respect Your Staff and Yourself - Staff aren’t working for leaders so they can be abused, and leaders certainly don’t need to be abused either. Serve each other. It’s what we are here for.
Main office - Make sure your main office is friendly. My secretary Donna Nikles is the face of the office and the kids and parents love her. She’s outgoing, friendly and loves to laugh. It’s impossible to be angry around her. My part-time secretary (full-time teacher’s aide) Colleen Grimm is just as friendly. Make sure you have people like that in the office. The parents and kids will thank you.
Walk the Talk - I always hated that statement but it’s true. No matter how great your climate may be, it can always be improved. We should all be working toward continuous improvement.


The National School Climate Center is having a summer institute from July 9th through July 11th in New York City. Peter is giving the keynote on July 9th.

NSCC is asking school leaders and teachers to take their climate survey so they can better understand the needs of schools. Please click here to take it. It only takes about 5 minutes.

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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