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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

Does Your School Climate Focus on Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — December 13, 2013 4 min read
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As a school leader, I always believed that I was the biggest contributor to our school climate. It’s not that I believe school leaders have the most important job in the school, because everyone plays an important part in the school community, but the climate of the school begins with the school leader. As Todd Whitaker says, “When the principal sneezes the whole school catches a cold.” It’s not always an easy job...nor should it be.

School leaders contribute to the climate every moment of every day. Whether its the way they talk with staff, students and parents or how they carry a message from the central office. They promote or destroy their school climate in how they talk about their own staff during meetings.

Do they focus on learning?


Do they focus on compliance?

Our current climates are constantly at risk. We are knee-deep in many educational issues, but unfortunately learning is not always the top priority. The adults involved in education focus more on high stakes testing, accountability measures and point scales than on...learning. School climate should always put learning first.

The Common Core may have potential to be powerful for many students and teachers, but they are going to need to evolve from where they are right now. Unfortunately, there will always be students who have issues that will not be remedied by the Common Core, because their issues involve poverty, abuse and unsupportive families. They need a deeper intervention than just new standards.

If teachers are required to stick to scripts (or if that is all they know how to do), they are doing a disservice to students. Sticking to scripts will not have a powerful impact and lacks creativity. Teaching is both an art (sometimes a performance art!) and a science. Jumping into “the Pit” of learning (James Nittingham) requires a school climate that fosters risk, and doesn’t worry about failure. Great educators know that failure is an important element to learning.

The CCSS are just one piece of a much larger puzzle in education. Too often we try to force learning...instead of foster it. Educators cannot control the outside lives of students, but they can, along with their students, create a classroom environment that fosters learning. Sometimes we get so caught up in the political debates (nor should we stop) that we lose our focus on learning. We need to focus on providing effective feedback (Hattie) to students and creating classroom spaces the fosters risk-taking not rule following.

Only then will our school climate improve...

School Climate Improvement

School leaders, students, staff and the parents who send their children to school all play a part in the climate of a school. Some of our school climates are sterile and focus on compliance. Other school climates focus on learning and not following rules.

The climate isn’t just how safe students feel; it’s how engaged in learning they are, and whether they feel the adults around them care whether they are reaching their maximum potential. Those issues are much more important than testing and accountability. We need to shift our thinking to learning and the Whole Child. We means teachers, principals, parents and state leaders.

When it comes to school climate and learning, the National School Climate Center says, “To create a safe, supportive and engaging environment that nurtures social, emotional, ethical, and academic learning in every child. This, in turn, has been shown to:

  • Enhance academic performance
  • Lower drop-out rates.
  • Reduce bullying and physical violence
  • Promote teacher retention

Click here to read more about the NSCC’s resources to help improve your school climate.

In the End

Contrary to popular belief, school leaders do not control morale, but they certainly contribute to it, and morale is something that weighs heavily on the minds of most educators these days. When leaders consistently micro-manage what each teacher does on a daily basis, they may raise test scores out of fear, but they break the backbone of the teachers and students in the school. However, if they are distant and interact minimally with staff and students, they are just as bad as any micromanager. Feedback is time sensitive, individualized, and should be delivered when it can do the most good (Hattie).

A larger question, is how do school leaders and teachers create a school climate that focuses on learning when there are so many outside influences effecting what happens inside schools? It can be done, but it will require a great deal of work to get there.

How do you impact your school’s climate?

  • How do you deliver a message to your peers?
  • Are you a voice of reason or do you take on a pack mentality?
  • How do you talk about your staff at administration meetings?
  • How do you talk about your students in the faculty room?
  • How do you react to your students?

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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.