During the summer, principals and teachers reflect on the past year and begin thinking about ways to improve their practices in the coming year. I’m often conflicted with the summer because I love the slower pace but I really miss seeing the kids and staff. Even my secretary, who is the face of the building, works part-time, which means that I have to work in isolation.
Working in isolation is peaceful because we can collect our thoughts and get our creative juices flowing, but too often our new ideas go untested with the very population we are working with every day. Creating a plan is easy, but following through is hard. The variables that complicate the plan may not have been there when we were coming up with it in the first place.
Although school buildings without students and staff can be a very lonely place the work still continues. We need to find ways to improve on the work we did the year before, and one area that always needs improvement is our school climate. In School Climate Matters(2013), Nirvi Shah wrote, “School climate is associated with positive child and youth development, effective risk-prevention and health-promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased student graduation rates, and teacher retention.”
It doesn’t matter how great we feel our school climate is; there are staff and students who may not feel comfortable. The National School Climate Center (NSCC) says, “A growing body of research has underscored how school connectedness is a fundamentally important and predictive aspect of students experience in schools.”
Perhaps it’s a student who does not feel safe or they don’t have a peer social group to belong to. Maybe it’s a staff member who feels that they have to be a rule follower and not a risk taker because of the way you run your building. Despite our best efforts, we have children and adults who are not fulfilling their maximum potential, and it begins with us.
Whitaker says, “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school’s focus” (2003, p.30). It’s just that simple. What we do as leaders matters to our staff, students and parents.
Thapa says, “Research supports the notion that a positive school climate promotes students’ abilities to learn. A positive school climate promotes cooperative learning, group cohesion, respect, and mutual trust.” As educators, we know that working with kids is never boring, and it shouldn’t be, which is why the job is so interesting and challenging. As an elementary school principal I often find that this is the first time they make big mistakes and have growing pains.
As school leaders, it’s not our job to always discipline students; it’s our job to help counsel them through the issue. We need to build trust with all stakeholders. Building trust happens in every conversation that we have with a student or a staff member. In the words of Stephan Covey, we invest in emotional bank accounts where we make deposits and sometimes make withdrawals.
When people think of school climate their thoughts go directly to bullying, but bullying is just one aspect of school climate. School climate is about proactively building a climate that prevents discipline issues before they start. A school climate is about engaging students and giving them the tools they need to survive in their future. It’s also about having supports in place for when they do make mistakes.
School leaders and staff who care about school climate can use the summer to come up with new ventures to create supports for students. There are a variety of ways school leaders and teachers can work on this over the summer. They are:
• Advisory Groups - Every staff member has a group of students who range from kindergarten through fifth grade (this will work at elementary, middle and secondary). We stay with the students from when they enter our building until the day they leave to go to the middle school.
• PAC - Create a Principals Advisory Group that includes stakeholders from each grade and subject area. Recruit staff over the summer and meet up with them to create an agenda for each month of the following year.
• Assemblies - Have whole school assemblies every other month or every quarter. Do reader’s theatres or something fun that focuses on school climate. The summer is a good time to come up with a plan.
• One Book, One School - Create a whole school or whole faculty book club where you focus on a book about creating a positive school climate. Whether it’s a chapter book about bullying or a faculty book about school climate, having one solid focus has many benefits.
Summer is often a really good time to reflect on how to help make those proactive interventions and supports stronger. The important step is not writing the ideas down, but actually following through on the ideas. It’s easy to create a plan, but hard to follow through.
The National School Climate Center offers one stop shopping for building and district leaders when it comes to school climate. They work focuses on:
• Professional development
• School climate research and practice
• Case studies
• Best Practices
• Collegial Connections
Peter will be the keynote speaker at the National School Climate Center’s Summer Institute (SI) in New York City on July 9th. SI runs from July 9th through the 11th. For more information, click here.
Connect with Peter on Twitter
Shah, Nirvi (2013). School Climate Matters. Rules For Engagement Blog. Education Week. Bethesday, MD.
Thapa, Amrit & Jonathan Cohen, Shawn Guffey, Ann Higgins-D’Alessandro (2013). A Review of School Climate Research. American Educational Research Association. Wasington D.C.
Whitaker, T. (2003). What Great Principals Do Differently. Columbus: Eye on Education.
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.